Communication apps and tools are a huge help for the many entrepreneurs, business owners, employees and freelancers with hearing loss. Even a single smartphone app such as Ava has the potential to transform workplace inclusion.
This guide details the best apps and tools for communication. If you are deaf or hard of hearing, maybe it can point you toward a few ideas you don’t yet know about. If you’re an employer, these apps and tools are good to be aware of. They help in a wide array of situations, including:
- One-on-one conversations
- Small and large group meetings
- Seminars and conferences
- Telephone conversations
- Video meetings
- Remote meetings
- Video or multimedia presentations
A quick note before diving into the guide: A tool that greatly benefits one worker could be of no benefit to another. The people who have hearing loss are diverse, and that’s reflected in the assortment of apps and tools available.
Table of Contents
- Ava: The App that Covers the Most Bases
- Live Transcribe: An Android App for Everyday Use (and Environmental Sounds!)
- Apple Sound Recognition: An iOS Feature for Environmental Sounds
- Apple Dictation: An iOS Feature for One-on-One Conversations
- Apple Spoken Content: Useful iOS Setting for Signers or Folks Doing Auditory Practice
- GBoard: Voice-to-Text for Android and Apple Devices
- Microsoft Teams: Live-Captioned Video Meetings
- Sound Amplifier: A Google App for Multimedia and In-Person Lectures
- Live Caption: Automatic Captioning for Android Videos and Podcasts
- Web Captioner: Access an Event, Speech or Video with Automated Captioning
- Video Captioning Services: Quick Third-Party Turnaround
- C-Print: An Option for Live Captioning Classes and Presentations
- Phone Amplifiers: Hear Better on the Phone
- Telephone Headsets: Get Better Clarity on the Phone and More Overall Flexibility
- Hamilton CapTel: Never Miss a Word Again with Phone Captioning
- YouMail: Read Your Voicemails
- Wavello: Video Relay for People Who Sign
- Personal FM Systems: Enhanced Listening in Larger Venues
- Hearing (Induction) Loops: Built into a Room’s Sound System
- Two-Way Radios: Options for Text in the Field
- Voice Recorders: Save Notes to Listen to Later
- Alerting Devices: Know When the Fire Alarm Goes Off
- Lower-Tech Solutions: Such As Clear Masks, Advance Notes and Whiteboards
Ava The App that Covers the Most Bases
Scenario: You want an app that covers virtually every workplace situation you can think of (including video meetings and voicing for you).
Ava is a smart captioner app that displays live captions on your smartphone (or computer for Ava Web). It’s a powerhouse that can handle practically anything at work, including one-on-one conversations, group meetings, conferences and seminars, video chat meetings and multimedia. Best of all, it doesn’t break the bank. Free plans are available, with hugely inclusive paid plans starting at $99 a month.
Take two very different situations. In the first, you want a smartphone app to transcribe what your colleagues say during occasional one-on-one conversations. Ava easily fits the bill.
Ava also fits the second scenario, which is much larger in scope. Your employer is hosting a conference with thousands of participants. There will be many breakout and speaker sessions, and it’s important that you know what is going on. Enter live captioning through Ava. Hook up iRig and other audio equipment to the room’s audio system to communicate with Ava. Live captions from the session will display on any smartphone that connects. No one, hearing or deaf, need miss a word or worry that they’re sitting too far back to hear everything clearly. Also, English may not be the first language for some participants. Maybe they grew up speaking, say, Spanish, French or Russian, and want conversations captioned in their primary language. Doable!
Some highlights of Ava:
- The free version offers up to five hours per month of live captioning. It’s great for occasional one-on-one conversations and even group conversations since there’s no limit on group size. You get approximately 85% accuracy at the free level.
- Captioning and translation into 16 languages starts at the Premium pricing tier ($14.99 a month). Accuracy is 90% to 95%.
- The Pro pricing tier ($99+ a month) enables any business to customize vocabulary relevant to the organization. Acronyms, names, special terms and jargon are all fair game. The accuracy at the Pro level is 95% and beyond.
- If you prefer not to speak, Ava can voice what you type (called text-to-speech). You get to actively participate in conversations.
- You can save conversation transcripts to refer to later.
- Ava Web empowers you participate in virtual meetings from your computer or smartphone. Suppose you hop onto a videoconference call for work; Ava Web makes it accessible via live captions. (As of June 2020, Ava Web works only with Chrome and Safari.)
- Ava Scribe incorporates human judgment to correct the mistakes made by artificial intelligence. The accuracy here is about 98%.
- Users can pair Ava with audio cables, group microphones and other gear to make meetings and seminars accessible.
Live Transcribe An Android App for Everyday Use (and Environmental Sounds!)
Scenario: You need an app for simpler uses such as one-on-one conversations. It would also be nice if the app let you better understand colleagues when they give presentations.
One nifty thing about Live Transcribe: It informs you about environmental sounds such as clapping, laughter and dogs barking. Never be caught unaware when your manager applauds to recognize a co- worker.
Important note: Live Transcribe is available only on Android devices as of June 2020, although it should be accessible for iOS devices soon.
- Add your name and other custom words to get alerts when that term is spoken.
- Get notified for selected environmental sounds such as clapping.
- See the volume of your voice (and other speakers’ voices) relative to the environment. This helps ensure you don’t speak too loudly.
- Copy and paste conversation transcripts into another app to save them.
- Add external devices for increased audio quality and range. With USB microphones and Bluetooth headsets, you can sit some distance away from a speaker and read the transcription on your phone. Never miss presentations again.
- Choose among more than 80 languages and dialects, and quickly switch from one to the other.
Apple Sound Recognition An iOS Feature for Environmental Sounds
Scenario: You want to know about sounds such as a baby crying, a knock on the door or smoke alarms going off.
Sound Recognition was one of the many new features in Apple’s iOS 14 release. Since it isn’t a standalone app, you find it by going to "Settings" and then "Accessibility." It has the potential to enhance or even transform users’ experiences at work and home. For instance, the door knock notification could ensure that more colleagues get attended to.
- Your iPhone or iPad continuously listens for certain environmental sounds you’ve designated.
- The sounds are grouped by category: Alarm (fire, siren, smoke); Animals (cat, dog); Household (appliances, car horn, door bell, door knock, water running); and People (baby crying). You enable individual sounds and not the entire category.
- The device notifies you when it picks up a designated sound. If necessary, experiment with your notification settings under "Notifications."
Apple is careful to point out that users should not rely on this feature for navigation or in emergency or high-risk situations. Likewise, users shouldn’t rely on it in situations where they could be harmed or injured.
Apple Dictation An iOS Feature for One-on-One Conversations
Scenario: You have an Apple phone and would like basic transcribing for face-to-face conversations.
Built-in dictation (voice-to-text) is available on most Apple mobile devices. On the iPhone, iPad or iPod, look for the microphone icon on the keyboard.
Suppose your colleague is talking to you but he’s difficult to lipread. Open Notes on your iPhone and start a new note. The microphone icon is at the bottom of the keyboard. Press it to pick up the words your colleague is voicing. Tap the keyboard icon to end dictation.
- An internet connection isn’t necessary if your iPhone is model 6s or later.
- Blue lines appear under words that are unclear. You (or your colleague) can use the keyboard or microphone to make corrections.
- Your co-worker can say "comma," "period," and "start a new paragraph," among other punctuation and formatting markers.
Apple Spoken Content Useful iOS Setting for Signers or Folks Doing Auditory Practice
Scenario One: You prefer to sign instead of using your voice. However, your colleagues don’t sign. Writing notes to them isn’t always possible or efficient.
Scenario Two: You just got new hearing aids or a cochlear implant. You’re doing auditory practice to train your brain to understand/re-understand speech.
Spoken Content is an iOS feature listed under "Vision," but it is useful to many people who are deaf or who have speech difficulties. Choose it by going to "Settings" and then "Accessibility."
There are two modes, "Speak Selection" and "Speak Screen." "Speak Selection" is the one you want for speaking to colleagues—and probably for auditory practice. For speaking to colleagues, type a message or pull up a pretyped message in Notes, email or any program on the device that has text. Select the text and choose "Speak" from the bar that pops up. Your device then reads the text out loud to your colleague. For auditory practice, choose a block of text to have it read to you.
- Enable "Highlight Content" for auditory practice on your own.
- Adjust speaking rate on a scale from turtle to hare.
- Choose from multiple languages and voices.
- Select whether you want the feature to be accessible in all apps, and if not, which apps.
- Use the replacement/substitution feature.
To expand on the latter point, you can substitute a phrase. For instance, say that you sit near the printer and it isn’t working. Go to "Pronunciations," enter the phrase, "printer," and then type the words you want voiced, for example, "The printer is not working, and I don’t know why. Sorry, I know it’s frustrating."
Using substitution can save a lot of time but works only inside the "Spoken Content" feature. If you highlight "printer," in Notes, your device voices, "printer," and nothing more.
GBoard Voice-to-Text for Android and Apple Devices
Scenario: You want a different device keyboard and need basic transcribing for face-to-face conversations.
On Android devices (and iPhones and iPads with iOS 9 and up), you can download Gboard - the Google Keyboard. It offers transcribing capabilities along with features such as glide typing, emoji search, stickers and Google search.
For transcribing what a co-worker says to you, open an app you type with (such as Gmail), tap an area where you would enter text, and press the microphone icon. When you see, "Speak Now," voice-to-text is available.
Microsoft Teams Live-Captioned Video Meetings
Scenario: Video meetings are part of your job, but you have a hard time understanding most people. You’re frustrated about missing important stuff.
A few apps help in the scenario presented above. One already mentioned is Ava Web. It offers live captioning regardless of the video meeting platform. Plus, if you do not speak, Ava can voice for you.
However, many organizations already use Microsoft Teams—and have no idea that live captioning is a feature.
Are you out of luck if your organization doesn’t use Microsoft Teams? Not necessarily. Google Meet offers automated live captioning, and so does Skype. Zoom is experimenting with adding its own automated captions as well. In the meantime, plenty of Zoom integrations are available, for example, Otter’s.
Zoom does offer a closed captions feature in which a human such as a colleague or a third party must directly type the captions. Companies such as CaptionSync offer paid Zoom captioning services as well.
- The captioning is relatively new, so it is in preview mode and available only in English.
- You can use it on computers and on mobile devices.
- The captioning is available through Microsoft Automatic Speech Recognition (ASR) technology.
- Avoid background noise and multiple people speaking at the same time. Each speaker should talk clearly and directly into their microphone. Clarity decreases the farther the speaker is from the microphone.
- The program doesn’t save captions for later use.
Sound Amplifier A Google App for Multimedia and In-Person Lectures
Scenario: When you watch a lecture in person or a training video on TV, it’s hard to understand.
When you plug in your headphones and use Sound Amplifier, you can customize frequencies to augment important sound, like the voices of the people you are with, and filter out background noise. It can help you hear conversations in noisy restaurants more clearly, amplify the sound coming from TV at personalized frequency levels without bothering others, or boost the voices of presenters at a lecture.
This is one of these apps that has many potential business uses.
Web Captioner Access an Event, Speech or Video with Automated Captioning
Scenario: You’re attending a presentation and would like live captioning to better understand what is being said, or you want the gist of a video recording.
Web Captioner is a free live captioning option that recognizes speech in more than 40 languages and dialects. It works only on the desktop version of Google Chrome but comes in especially useful if you prefer a bigger screen to read captions on. To run Web Captioner, connect a microphone or another audio input source to your computer.
Web Captioner also comes in handy if your phone doesn’t have Live Caption, and you want to know what a video says. Hold the phone to your computer and let the video play. The resulting captions are unlikely to be 100% accurate, but you will get the gist (or better) of what is being said.
Video Captioning Quick Third-Party Turnaround
Scenario: You want accurate captions for various types of classes, lectures and presentations. The captions don’t have to be live.
Video captioning services are a viable option for videos, training materials and the like. Your business submits a captioning request to a service such as Rev for quick turnaround time. In June 2020, Rev charged $1.25 per video minute and 24-hour turnaround time. Not bad! If a name or organizational term is misspelled, you have the ability to change the closed captioning file. Your colleagues don’t need accounts with Rev to view, download or edit files.
C-Print An Option for Live Captioning Classes and Presentations
Scenario: You are slated to participate in a training class, community meeting or workshop as part of your job. A fair degree of nuance is involved. You or your employer is nervous about handing the reins over to a smart captioner app such as Ava.
With C-Print and other live captioning services, a captionist produces a text version of what is being said.
- The ongoing transcript is sent to your mobile device or computer. You can keep it for future study or reference.
- You can customize your display preferences.
- You can communicate with the captionist (and the captionist can communicate with you). If you prefer not to speak, the captionist can ask questions and make statements on your behalf.
- The captionist focuses on meaning-for-meaning translation. Verbal clutter such as, "Ah," and "um" is not a priority.
C-Print does have a few downsides. Mainly, captionist services don’t come free, and you must reserve a captionist in advance. There is less flexibility if job times change, but the work can be done remotely.
A C-Print job lasting a few hours could run into the hundreds of dollars for your employer. Some companies balk at the cost even if you’re entirely within your rights to receive this accommodation.
However, suppose multiple people with hearing loss attend the same class. They can all access what the C-Print captionist types for no extra charge. If their numbers are high enough, paying just a few hundred dollars may appeal to your employer. Also, a captionist deeply familiar with the material being delivered is likely to offer more nuance/more accurate transcripts than Ava does.
Ava generally costs less, but it requires (minimal) gear for larger setups. If you or your employer don’t already use Ava at work, C-Print may make more sense. That’s especially true if classes and workshops aren’t a regular part of your job, like if you attend them once a year at most.
Important note: C-Print is similar to CART (communication access real-time translation). However, CART services render verbatim transcripts, including crutch words such as, "Ah," Um," and "Erm." CART is similar to what you see on TV captions and in courtrooms. It’s not the friendliest service for everyday purposes but makes sense in workplace situations where verbatim transcripts are helpful.
Phone Amplifiers Hear Better on the Phone
Scenario: Phone conversations are difficult due to other people sounding muddled. You often ask co- workers and clients to repeat themselves.
Many folks, especially those who don’t wear hearing aids, use a phone amplifier. (If you do wear hearing aids, amplifiers can still help.) Amplifiers are multi-talented, doing more than making sounds louder. For example, they reduce background noise and make higher-pitched sounds easier to understand.
- Amplifiers are available for mobile and landline phones.
- A dedicated amplifier phone could serve your purposes if you work at one station and use the same phone. Otherwise, mobile amplifiers are easy to transport.
- Your co-workers can use dedicated amplifier phones, too (they just need to adjust the volume downward).
- Dedicated amplifier phones increase sound by up to 40 decibels. Some portable amplifiers are less powerful, increasing sound by 30 decibels.
- Many amplifiers have visual indicators to show when the phone rings. Some amplifiers connect to hearing aids for better speech understanding.
- Captioning phones such as CapTel’s have built-in amplifiers.
Telephone Headsets Get Better Clarity on the Phone and More Overall Flexibility
Scenario: Traditional telephone amplifiers are OK, but you want something more versatile, for example, something you can use with a TV or CD player, too.
Systems such as the NoiZfree Cellphone Telecoil Dual Silhouette or the Jabra Evolve 40 could serve your telephone amplifier needs in addition to several other needs. The Jabra Evolve 40 offers intelligent call transfer, passive noise cancellation and personal device connectivity, while the NoiZfree is for telecoil hearing aid use with cellphones, CD players, intercoms and other audio sources.
Hamilton CapTel Never Miss a Word Again with Phone Captioning
Scenario: You talk on the phone as part of your job but want something in addition to sound amplifiers (or don’t benefit enough from them/just plain prefer not to use them).
Companies such as CapTel, CaptionCall and ClearCaptions offer dedicated captioning phones. The other person’s words appear for you to read on a screen, thanks to advanced voice recognition technology and a communications assistant.
Also available are mobile apps and web captioning. You can use the latter with any type of telephone (business, landline, mobile, etc.) and read the captions on a computer screen. Hamilton CapTel mobile apps are available for Android and Apple devices, and let you easily read captions of what’s being said during phone conversations. If you want to explore CapTel alternatives, the Job Accommodation Network gives an extensive list of captioned telephone providers.
YouMail Read Your Voicemails
Scenario: You’d like voicemail transcripts so you don’t miss potentially important information.
Many carriers or cellphones offer voicemail transcription. For example, Siri on iPhone transcribes voicemails for no additional charge, and Visual Voicemail may be available through your iPhone carrier.
Otherwise, YouMail is a free smartphone app for voicemail transcription. Its other features include voicemail by email, stopping robocalling, and filtering out spam voicemails.
If you use a CaptionCall phone, the phone offers captioned voicemails (many captioning phones do). Other voicemail transcription options are available through the Job Accommodation Network.
Wavello Video Relay for People Who Sign
Scenario: You make phone calls as part of your job but prefer to sign rather than use your voice. Your primary language is American Sign Language.
Video relay providers such as Sorenson offer products, including the nTouch VP2, built specifically for the Deaf community. The nTouch VP2 has an intuitive interface, autofocus camera and 1080p HD video quality. Sorenson also offers nTouch Mobile for smartphones, but its most intriguing offering is Wavello, which is included on nTouch products.
Through Wavello, the person who is deaf, the interpreter and the hearing person can see one another on the call. It’s a nice substitute for video chats since these people would otherwise not be able to see each other. (The Job Accommodation Network lists other video relay providers.)
Personal FM Systems Enhanced Listening in Larger Venues
Scenario: You’re attending a meeting, seminar or conference and need extra help to hear better.
Hearing aids and cochlear implants perform most effectively for one-on-one meetings and in places that lack background noise. They are not as effective in larger venues or the farther away you are from the people speaking. Unfortunately, many rooms echo, and loudspeakers may be too far away to be of much use.
FM systems are a possible solution (and you may already use them in your personal life). A speaker, microphone or other sound source transmits sound into connected hearing aids or cochlear implants. Lapel and tabletop microphones are two examples of transmitters, and they can have more than one receiver.2
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission gives this example of FM system use:3
An employer has an annual all-employee meeting for more than 200 employees. Thelma, who has a severe hearing impairment, requests the use of an ALD [assistive listening device] in the form of a personal FM system. Speakers would wear small microphones that would transmit amplified sounds directly to a receiver in Thelma's ear. The employer determines that an ALD is a reasonable accommodation that will allow Thelma to participate in the meeting without causing an undue hardship.
Hearing (Induction) Loops Built into a Room’s Sound System
Scenario: You’re attending a meeting, seminar or conference and need extra help to hear better.
Hearing loops, unlike personal FM systems, are built into a room’s setup. The loops work with the telecoil settings on hearing aids and cochlear implants. If you don’t wear a device with a telecoil setting, the hearing loop may enable you to use headphones and portable receivers.
Hearing loops connect wirelessly, facilitate clearer sounds and reduce background noise. They are more common in large venues such as churches, movie theaters and university classrooms, although they’re found in such varied settings as subway ticket counters and information desks. Professional installation in an auditorium can cost several thousand dollars but costs much less for a smaller room.4 Another way to save is to have in-house personnel do installation. Installing a hearing loop might not make sense for your business, but it could be something to look into.
Two-Way Radios Options for Text in the Field
Scenario: You perform fieldwork that requires two-way radio communication. Problem is, it’s difficult for you to understand speech over radios.
Some two-way radios have texting capabilities. They include the Motorola DTR410 Digital Two Way Radio and the Vertex eVerge EVX-5400 Digital Mobile Two Way Radio.5
Voice Recorders Save Notes to Listen to Later
Scenario: You want to record a lecture you’re attending so you have more time later to process it. You’d rather not use your personal phone and don’t have a work phone.
Standalone voice recorders such as the Plextalk Pocket DAISY Player PTP1 and Olympus VN-7200 Digital Voice Recorder may fit the bill. These voice recorders come in especially helpful for people who may have additional issues such as a seizure disorder.6
Alerting Devices Know When the Fire Alarm Goes Off
Scenario: You’d like to be aware of environmental sounds such as the telephone ringing and the fire alarm going off.
The Job Accommodation Network publishes an extensive list of alerting devices. Whether you work alone, operate the front desk at a hotel or do accounting in a back room, devices such as wireless door signalers, phone strobe flashers and carbon monoxide alerts have you covered.
Smartphone apps and other technical devices are wonderful for communication. However, plenty of lower-tech solutions work well, too. That has become increasingly evident during the COVID-19 pandemic because traditional face masks present lipreading challenges and other communication issues. Enter clear masks.
Face masks drastically cut the spread of diseases such as COVID-19, but lipreading and reading expressions are not possible with most masks.
Thankfully, there are masks with a clear section around the mouth area. If you have a worker who is deaf, it’s good practice to get clear masks for everyone at the business.
Round tables and U-shaped designs offer more access to facial expressions and speechreading. Otherwise, workers who are deaf may struggle mightily to follow conversations, much less identify who is speaking.
Advance notes give your workers more time to prepare for meetings and presentations. Employees are more likely to understand the material if they already know the topic and have an outline (or even better, a transcript) to follow. Distribution can be done electronically or through printouts. If possible, give all attendees these advance notes so everyone benefits.7
There’s actually a lot that is possible in the vein of advance notes.
- Simply announcing the agenda of a meeting at the beginning provides useful context.
- If your company uses Slack (or a similar tool) and is holding a huge meeting, ask for questions to be submitted in the Slack channel with the ? icon (instead of each person asking their questions during the question-and-answer session). When Q&A time does arrive, one person can read each question aloud.
Pen and Paper
Simple is good sometimes, especially for a quick question or if your phone dies. To save time, write your message before you give it to the recipient. Two slightly higher-tech alternatives are whiteboards and Boogie Boards.
Whiteboards and Markers
If pen and paper do not appeal, then whiteboards and markers might. Whiteboards are available in all sizes, including handheld for individual employee use. Whiteboards also come in handy during group meetings. Use whiteboards to
- Illustrate a change of topic
- Better organize or categorize information
- Increase employee attention and engagement
Another bonus: You can easily erase mistakes.
The Best Communication Apps and Tools for
Happy, productive employees are the best. Fortunately, many apps and tools facilitate easier communication. There’s a lot that still can be done, for example, having automatic live captions on all videoconferencing platforms. Hopefully, that will happen one day. In the meantime, there’s more than enough for businesses and their employees to keep everyone in the loop.
- Captioning Options for Videoconferencing and Learning Management Systems: Automated Captions, Captioned Phone Services and More
- Speech-to-Text Options: Small Groups, Large Groups and Other Communication Settings
- U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: Deafness and Hearing Impairments in the Workplace and the Americans with Disabilities Act
- Job Accommodation Network: Accommodation and Compliance: Hearing Impairment
References and Footnotes
- Wallen, J. (2020, February 20). How to Enable Live Caption in Android 10. Tech Republic. Retrieved July 08, 2020, from https://www.techrepublic.com/article/how-to-enable-live-caption-in-android-10
- FM Systems. (2019, July 23). Retrieved July 08, 2020, from https://www.hearinglink.org/living/loops-equipment/fm-systems/
- Deafness and Hearing Impairments in the Workplace and the Americans with Disabilities Act. (2014, May 07). The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Retrieved July 08, 2020, from https://www.eeoc.gov/laws/guidance/deafness-and-hearing-impairments-workplace-and-americans-disabilities-act
- Frequently Asked Questions about Hearing Loops. (2018, May 21). Hearing Loss Association of America. PDF. Retrieved July 08, 2020, from https://www.hearingloss.org/wp-content/uploads/GITHLHearingLoop-FAQs.pdf
- Two-Way Radio with Texting. (n.d.). Job Accommodation Network. Retrieved July 08, 2020, from https://askjan.org/solutions/Two-Way-Radio-With-Texting.cfm
- Voice Recorders. (n.d.). Job Accommodation Network. Retrieved July 08, 2020, from https://askjan.org/solutions/Voice-Recorders.cfm
- Tips for Assisting Employees with Hearing Loss in the Work Place. (2018, May 07). Retrieved July 08, 2020, from https://www.captel.com/2014/03/tips-for-assisting-employees-with-hearing-loss-in-the-work-place/