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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Video Relay Service Interpreters: Intricacies of Sign Language Access

Jeremy L. Brunson

Chapter Two
The Architecture of Access

Video relay service centers are the nexus at which various people’s work of creating access meet and become tangible. The architecture of the video relay centers is a broad term that refers not only to physical structures, but also the organization of activity within these spaces. The physical structure of the call center houses multiple people and pieces of equipment, and it creates a defined space. In doing so, the architecture also organizes the relations that occur in that space. People who enter this defined space physically or virtually have specific roles and titles. Whether they are client, employee (contract or staff), manager, or custodian, their behavior is organized by the space they are in and the title they have in that space. In addition to highlighting the organizing effects of the layout and work processes of the center, this chapter gives readers who are unfamiliar with VRS a glimpse into a center.

Years before VRS became a reality I attended an interpreter training program. A talented interpreter came to one of my classes and talked about her work as an interpreter. She opened her presentation by saying “We interpret everything from birth to death.” That statement stuck with me throughout my training, and since. I have been called on to interpret business meetings, promotions, terminations, loan applications, doctor’s appointments, the birth of children, the burial of loved ones, depositions, criminal trials, and a whole host of other interactions in which deaf people find themselves having to deal with non-deaf, nonsigning people. The advent of VRS has made it possible for my colleagues and me to enter into yet another realm of deaf people’s lives that interpreters have not often been privy to on a consistent basis: telephone interactions.

People, as social creatures, are constantly devising ways in which we can maintain connections to one another. Using various mechanical devices, people are able to stay “in touch” with people across the street or across the globe. The telephone represents one such way. It is used to connect people to friends and family, to place orders for everything from foods and gifts to services and clothing. Although the passage of the Telecommunication Enhancement Act of 1986 enabled deaf people to have text relay services that enabled them to use the phone (National Center for Law and Deafness 1992), through VRS, deaf people can now stay in touch with friends and family and order goods and services using their first language, ASL. They are able to enjoy the benefits their nondeaf counterparts have enjoyed since the telephone first appeared in U.S. homes in the early part of the 1900s.

Telephone service, and the human connections it encourages, is also a business. The success of that business depends on the ability of the technologies to perform effectively. Businesses spend a great deal of money to ensure that the technology, environments that house the technology and the operators who interface with it operate correctly. To do otherwise would be bad business.

Although I have and draw on my experience as a sign language interpreter working in five different VRS centers, the data I discuss are primarily based on participant observations I conducted at two VRS centers for one particular provider, Ease Communication.


The call centers are in locked office buildings that require access cards to enter. On the multiple occasions I did not have my access card, I had to ring the doorbell and wait for another interpreter to let me in. Of course, an auditory doorbell would be distracting to interpreters and callers so the centers have visual alarms — slow flashing strobe lights — to alert people that someone is “ringing” the doorbell. There are also deaf staff members in the centers. These visual doorbells also allow them to know someone is at the door.

The centers I worked in have cubicles in rows. Each interpreter sits in a cubicle that has a 32-inch television, a complete computer, with Internet access, and a videophone. In addition to the hardware in the cubicle, each station, as they are called, has various documents. These documents include the protocol for processing different types of calls (e.g., local or international) and for transferring calls, training information, and scripts that are to be read aloud to the non-deaf person or signed to the deaf caller. Although the location and manner in which these various texts are displayed differ (one center had them in a binder while the other one had them pinned to the cubicle wall), the information is the same type.

These protocols are located in a place that makes them easily accessible to the interpreters but out of sight of the deaf callers. This does not mean that deaf people are unaware that these documents exist. In fact, on many occasions when a deaf person asked for the number to technical support, I hurriedly looked around my cubicle trying to find the number. Undoubtedly, they were able to see me looking around. I also would, at times, open up the binder to the correct page, in front of the camera, and sign the number to the caller while reading it off the document. But to have too many papers in the background of the interpreter could be distracting to callers.

These documents provide quick resources for a variety of technical issues that could arise for signed language interpreters. Another reason for these documents is to standardize practices. The goal is to cover a range of scenarios in order to limit the amount of individual discretion each interpreter must exercise. By increasing standardization, VRS providers aim to make interpreters interchangeable and thereby allow Ease Communication to use interpreters to fill a time slot rather than a communication need. That is, the primary goal is to have enough interpreters to cover the expected call volume. Whether or not the interpreter is the right interpreter for the particular call is a secondary consideration.

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