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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
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Often this explanation suffices and the call proceeds. However, occasionally the deaf caller is conducting business with a bank or a social security office and the non-deaf person wants more information because he does not trust that I am actually interpreting for a deaf patron. In such a case, the prescription for neutrality seems to produce obstacles to accomplishing the goals of all parties involved.

Sign language interpreters convey the communications of the people for whom they are interpreting in first person. That is, when a deaf person signs, “hello my name marcos. me want talk daniel,” the interpreter will say, “Hello, my name is Marcos. I want to talk to Daniel.” In VRS, it is customary for interpreters to identify the process but not themselves. Therefore, even though we are talking in first person, the non-deaf person has been told that it is not actually the deaf person calling. When the nondeaf person answers the phone, we read the following script:16

Hello. This is interpreter number _____ with Ease Communication, Inc. I have a video relay call (from a customer, patient, etc.) for you. Have you received a video relay call before?
If the non-deaf caller says, “Yes, I have had a video relay call before,” the interpreter will say, “I will connect you with the caller,” and the call continues. If, on the other hand, they have not, there is another script we read. That script says:
I will briefly explain. I have a person on the line who uses sign language to communicate. We can see each other on TV screens. I will be interpreting the call between the two of you. You don’t need to say “GA” or “go ahead.” I will connect the caller.
The interpreter can, and does, in certain situations elaborate on the script. For example, we do not always include the phrase about “GA” or “go ahead,” which relates to the turn-taking practices used in text relay service. It is only when the non-deaf caller is familiar with text relay but not video relay that interpreters typically include this reference. The interpreter can change the words used to convey the other parts of the scripts.

However, there is one place where we are told not to elaborate: with the line that states, “I have a person on the line who uses sign language to communicate.” Because the issue of identity is touchy, we are told not to replace “sign language” with “American Sign Language” or say that the person on the line is “deaf.” Both of these imply a cultural affinity. Therefore, we are told to state only that the caller uses sign language, something we can see, and not to make a judgment as to whether they consider themselves to be deaf or that their version of sign language is ASL.

Once the scripts are read, the call will proceed. It is the use of these scripts that can cause some problems with certain institutions, such as banks. Typically they are not willing to discuss financial information through a third party. I have, on several occasions, been asked to put the deaf person on the phone so he can give the bank personnel permission to talk with me about his finances because of confidentiality reasons. When I explain that I am providing a service and that the deaf person is not in the same room with me, bank personnel often refuse to cooperate. This is easily rectified by us calling back and not identifying the process. That is, I do not explain that there is a deaf person calling through an interpreter. I, and several of my colleagues, simply tell the deaf person that they should call back and not tell the person about VRS. Sometimes the deaf caller already knows that this is the way around the inflexible bank official. Either way, access and “functional equivalency” is achieved by breaking the rules.

Return to Queue

Although the scheduling and other technologies make VRS convenient for some interpreters, working for VRS means relinquishing the ability to assess interpreting assignments and choose the ones for which they are best suited. However, the technology used by Ease Communication does permit interpreters to return a call to the queue if, for example, they know the deaf person and feel they are unable to provide effective and unbiased interpretation for the caller. When a call drops into the queue and shows up on an interpreter’s screen, the interpreter can see the name of the caller, the phone number the caller is calling from, and the number she wishes to call. At this point, there is no visual of the deaf person, and she has not seen the interpreter. With a simple click of the mouse, the interpreter can drop the call back in the queue for the next available interpreter. Even though this capability is there, the practice seems to be frowned upon by management (and the FCC). Here Kathryn talks about how she uses the return-to-queue option:

One of the reasons that I wanted to work at Ease Communication is because I didn’t want to interpret for people locally anymore. I had interpreted for a lot of them. I knew most of them because of my parents [who are deaf]. But now that my husband is deaf too, I just feel like everybody is afraid that anything I interpret I am going to tell my husband. I just don’t want to deal with it. That is why I return to queue. When I see a deaf person who I know drop into my station, I return it to queue so that I don’t have to interpret for them.
Kathryn was eventually called into the manager’s office and warned that she was abusing the return-to-queue option. The manager was not persuaded by Kathryn’s argument. Kathryn told me that she thinks using this option for two or three calls per shift would be acceptable, but she was not sure. When I asked other interpreters about the practice of returning to queue, the answers varied. Tyler, an interpreter who is currently in graduate school, told me he too worked at Ease Communication so he would not have to interpret for local people anymore. “I am trying to distance myself from the local Deaf community because I am hoping to become a therapist in this community. I want them to see me as a therapist, not an interpreter.” However, when I asked Tyler whether he had been talked to about using the return-to-queue option, he stated,
I try not to use it too much. Most of the time, I get calls from people in other states so it doesn’t really matter. There have been a few times, like last week, I was working the graveyard shift and every other call was from someone I knew. I had to return to queue. Nobody has mentioned it to me, yet. Maybe they haven’t gotten the report. (giggles)
Tyler continues by saying, “But I have heard of others who have used the return-to-queue a lot. Also during meetings [management] has said that we should not abuse the return-to-queue function.”

I followed up with Jake, who is a manager at one of the centers. He said, “The return-to-queue function is not to be used all the time. We know that there are going to be times when an interpreter doesn’t want to interpret for a particular person for whatever reason or that they just need a break.” When I asked him how many times is acceptable to return a call to queue he said, “If you are returning more than ten calls to queue per week that is too many. I think that ten would be ok.” Jake told me that there was not a “hard-and-fast rule,” though.

As Jake said, most people stated they used the return-to-queue option when they finished a call they found particularly difficult and needed a break before taking another call and had not logged off before the next call dropped into their station. This is the intended use for the return-to queue function.

16. These scripts are not the exact scripts used by Ease Communication. Furthermore, each VRS provider has its own scripts, and each one that I have seen gives basically the same information.


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