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Technology erases silence when Waldron uses phone

Amy Fletcher
Denver Business Journal

Able Planet CEO Jo Waldron had a childhood she doesn't want anyone to repeat and the technology she developed is helping ensure no one will.

Like many people with hearing loss, Waldron, 52, beat what most would consider impossible odds. With no measurable hearing and disabling illnesses, she endured years of loneliness, misunderstanding and isolation.

But Waldron's determination, education and years of hard work have led to extraordinary technological achievements that could benefit millions of deaf people and their families.

In June, Fort Collins-based Able Planet Inc. launched a product that allows people with mild to severe hearing loss to use telephones.

"It's such wonderment. I can't imagine how hearing people take for granted the wonderful things they can hear every day, even if it's somebody yelling -- it's sound," Waldron said. "It's just so phenomenal to go from my world where the only thing that happens in the world is what you can see and what you can feel. ... Sound connects you, not only to the world but to people."

For Waldron, who is completely deaf, the microtechnology allowed her to hear the voice of her children for the first time, but it also has helped with tasks most people take for granted, such as scheduling a business meeting or a doctor's appointment.

"Talk about freedom, talk about safety," she said. "I'm not scared anymore. With my cell phone and my hands-free, I can make a call from anywhere -- whether it's a call for help or it's ordering a pizza."

There are millions of Americans who can't use voice telecommunication. Some rely on TTY, or text telephones, to communicate. TTY users communicate with regular telephone users through specially trained operators, who relay the conversation between the two callers.

But TTY is not available in many locations outside a deaf person's home, Waldron said, and a typical five-minute conversation between hearing people takes about 30 minutes when a TTY relay is used.

Able Planet's technology can be used anywhere and a hearing person wouldn't necessarily know the person on the other end is deaf.

"You go from a world of watching things happen to all of a sudden hearing things happen," she said. "It's such an incredible feeling."

Waldron was born in 1950 in the small town of Great Bend, Kan. Newborns were not screened for hearing loss then, and it wasn't until she was 3 that doctors realized she was deaf. That same year, she contracted polio and lost the ability to walk, a skill she relearned the next year with the help of her mother.

Waldron relied on drawing pictures to communicate, and it wasn't until she was 8 that she could talk in a way anyone could understand.

"School was hell. It was the '50s, Most kids wouldn't come near me due to the fact that their parents told them to stay away from me because they may catch my deafness," she said. "I didn't walk very well, I didn't obviously talk very well. ... It was incredibly lonely and a very incredibly cruel time. Children repeat what they see and what they hear, and I was certainly a novelty."

Learning was reduced to what Waldron read in books and from people's lips, "which is kind of tough."

"The teacher would go to the board and just start writing," she said. "Spelling tests were great. For the longest time I thought there were only three words in the spelling test because that's all I could see."

Her fourth-grade teacher made Waldron wear signs around her neck whenever she mispronounced a word. The signs, 8 by 10 inches, had the word she mispronounced on them.

"Most days I had 50 to 75 signs around my neck," said Waldron, who, despite her speech problems, made good grades. "I knew a lot of words; I just didn't know how to pronounce them."

Despite her academic success, most schools thought she couldn't succeed as a deaf person, and Waldron attended the only college that would accept her, Fort Hays State University in Hays, Kan. She wanted to go into business and deaf education, but Waldron left school after three years and 90 credits, 30 credits shy of a diploma. Waldron said she was overwhelmed by three jobs and lip reading in large lecture halls.

She also said she was raped by a professor.

"I just went public with that," Waldron said, referring to a speech she gave. "I thought after 30-some years, it was time to bring that to the forefront."

According to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, among women with disabilities, 51 percent to 79 percent report sexual violence.

"How many people would take up the charge if it were 79 percent of all women?" she said. "That's just horrific."

Waldron is a well-known advocate for people with disabilities. In 1987, President Ronald Reagan appointed her "Disabled American for the Nation." Since then, she has worked closely with several presidential administrations and spent more than 11 years working on the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Civil Rights Act of 1991 and Section 255 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which requires telecommunications manufacturers and service providers to make their products accessible to people with disabilities, if "readily achievable."

Waldron married after she left college and had three boys, two of whom have disabilities. One has a hearing disability. One has a learning disability.

She began working, specializing in human resources and placing people in jobs.

"I loved it. My only problem was trying to do it without a phone," she said, adding that she couldn't call to schedule appointments; she just drove to an employer's office and hoped for the best. "But I did very well in interviewing people and getting the information necessary to really put together great résumés and giving presentations to employers."

She also became an expert in employment law.

"Knowing the laws as I did, it was going to be pretty difficult for any employer to discriminate against me because I am in a protected class," Waldron said. "I didn't want special treatment, I just wanted the same opportunity."

Her jobs in personnel gave her not only job protection but also a technical background that would later help her create Able Planet's microtechnology, even though she didn't have formal training. Among her jobs: serving on AMI/NASA's space shuttle design team in Colorado Springs.

"I spent almost 25 years in a manufacturing environment, and if you don't pick up something you have to be unconscious," Waldron said. "Manufacturing, engineering, prototype design ... that put me in a very incredible position actually because I had to understand every component of the job to make sure I was hiring the right person."

And, of course, she already was an expert on hearing aids. Her family would send her everything touted as a solution, only to have it fail. All of the money her family wasted on the products is one of the reasons Able Planet refunds the cost if the product doesn't work.

"The auditory system is very complex," Waldron said. "You can't take a hearing aide and solve everybody's problem any more than you could take one person's glasses and have everyone see the same."

Able Planet's microtechnology measures 1 millimeter, about the size of the head of a push pin. It fits in standard telephones or pay phones or in any hands-free headsets, including those used with cell phones, computers and MP3 and CD players. The technology sells for $3.10 each, depending on the quantity purchased. If bought with a standard phone, it costs $65.95.

"I use my cell phone all the time. I probably spend 80 percent of my day either on my office phone, my cell phone or my home phone. When I hang up my phone with the last call at night, then I don't hear another sound until I get back on the phone the next morning," Waldron said. "That's a whole new meaning to disconnecting. It seems like at the end of the day when things are said and done, I go back to my world, and being given the opportunity to hear ... my world seems so silent."

The patent-pending technology -- developed under the technical guidance of Colorado State University researcher Joan Burleigh -- works differently than current technologies which increase volume but not clarity.

Users adjust their hearing aid to the "T" setting and turn down the volume on their hearing aid to use the Able Planet device. The device has been able to increase speech discrimination by about 30 percent.

While not noticeable to others, the device amplifies speech and clarity of the audio signal for those with hearing loss.

In June, Hyatt Hotel Corp. said it will include Able Planet's technology in all new guest room telephone sets purchased for hotels in the United States, Canada and the Caribbean. Hyatt already has installed the technology in nearly 300 phones in Colorado, including the Hyatt Regency Denver, Hyatt Regency Tech Center and Park Hyatt Beaver Creek. Hyatt is phasing in the Able Planet technology into their telephones, which will include the replacements of existing guest room telephones in the normal course of business.

Able Planet hopes to get its hearing device installed in phones at hotels, malls, and amusements parks nationwide, Waldron said. She also hopes cell phone companies will begin putting the chip in new phones.

The company got a boost in July when the FCC said wireless manufacturers and service providers must take steps to make digital wireless phones accessible to the more than 6 million people with hearing disabilities that use hearing aids.

The commission decided that companies should be required to work to reduce the amount of interference emitted from digital wireless phones and to provide the internal capability for telecoil, or T-coil, coupling. Digital wireless phones can cause interference to hearing aids and cochlear implants because of electromagnetic energy emitted by the phone's antenna or other components. This interference can be significant enough to prevent people with hearing aids from using wireless phones.

Hearing aids operating in telecoil coupling mode avoid unwanted ambient noise by turning off the microphone and receiving only magnetic fields generated by telecoil-compatible telephones. In the United States, about 25 percent to 30 percent of hearing aids contain telecoils, which generally are used by people with profound hearing loss.

Able Planet expects to grow quickly and is working to apply its technology in other areas.

"If I can use this technology without my hearing aid, and I can hear crystal clear on a phone or wireless phone, then very soon I want the ability to hear you standing in front of me, face to face," she said. "The company will have tremendous growth, but I'm more excited every day that some school or university or hospital or hotel ... puts this technology in their phone. That's more doors that are open. That's one more piece of society that's accessible."

© 2003 American City Business Journals Inc.



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