For years, the Department of Veterans Affairs has distributed teletype machines called TTYs for free to help some deaf, hearing-impaired or blind veterans make text-based calls from their home telephone lines.
But until now, the VA hasn’t had teletype machines of its own to answer if a veteran called for help. That left some veterans unable to contact the VA for even basic services like scheduling appointments and ordering medicine.
“They couldn’t even fill a prescription. They had to drive to the clinic,” said State Sen. Carol Blood, whose Bellevue legislative district includes a large concentration of veterans. “I said, ‘This can’t be true.’ ”
The VA Nebraska-Western Iowa Health Care System said last week it has ordered some of the machines, including one that will be in the lobby of the VA hospital in Omaha. Jennifer Scales, a VA spokeswoman, said a test of the new devices is scheduled to begin Friday.
The phone numbers for the devices have not yet been published.
She said she would provide additional information once they are working.
The chain of events that led to the installation of the teletypes began in May, when Blood talked with Shawn Wilbur, who heads the Nebraska chapter of the Blinded Veterans Association, at a Memorial Day event. Wilbur told her about a local Army veteran who is blind and deaf, and uses VA services.
Jasmine Lewis, 29, said she lost her sight and hearing after a brutal assault by a fellow soldier in 2008. She relies on TTY and text to communicate with others. Her teletype and cellphone translate messages for her into Braille.
When she and other veterans with impaired sight or hearing contact the VA, no one is equipped to receive their messages.
“I can’t contact places independently and have to rely on friends or coming in person to take care of things,” Lewis said in a text message to The World-Herald.
Blood wrote B. Don Burman, the director of the VA Nebraska-Western Iowa Health Care System. She also wrote to VA officials in Washington and to President Donald Trump.
“Often (veterans) have a simple question they need to ask and must trek to the hospital,” Blood wrote in one of the letters. “Nebraska-Iowa veterans deserve better.”
Burman responded that the Nebraska-Western Iowa Health Care System “has the proper equipment for patients that come in the medical center for their care.” But he acknowledged that the VA “is lacking in some areas where the hearing-impaired might be needing care from our system.”
He told her the VA is working on plans for a call center that would have the proper equipment to communicate with deaf and hearing-impaired veterans across the region.
The VA has relied on the nationwide 711 network to relay calls from teletype callers. The callers may dial those three digits to reach an operator with a TTY who can contact and relay messages to people or businesses without teletype machines.
But the 711 system isn’t widely known, Wilbur said. And some callers aren’t comfortable with relaying information that way.
“They don’t want to talk about personal information through a third party,” he said.
Lewis said the relay operators aren’t always reliable. On Thursday she broke her thumb and used a long distance company’s system to call a VA nurse because the 711 system was down.
Dave Hutcheson, a spokesman for the nonprofit Hearing Loss Association of America, said teletype machines have fast become obsolete, largely because of smartphones and related apps.
“There’s so many things out there besides TTY. Most everyone now is using modern technology,” he said.
But he agreed many veterans likely still rely on old, familiar technology.
“The only people who would be using them would be your older generation — World War II, Korean War, Vietnam,” Hutcheson said.
A large share of the veterans seeking VA care are older. And hearing loss is a leading cause of disability among veterans.
“TTY has been around for a long time,” said Michael Young, who heads an aid group called Welcome Home Nebraska Veterans. “This should have been implemented before.”
Blood said she is happy, though, that the VA responded to concerns she raised.
“Within six weeks, we got action,” she said. “They realized it was a pressing issue.”