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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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One of the regulations established by the FCC is that calls cannot be transferred to another interpreter within the first ten minutes after connecting (47 C.F.R. § 64.604[v]). This is to prevent the unnecessary transferring of a caller. This means that once a call is accepted by an interpreter, he must stay with the call until it is complete or ten minutes has passed. This only becomes a problem at the end of a shift. Interpreters do not want to take a call at 3:53 p.m. if they are scheduled to leave at 4:00 p.m. To avoid this, and stay in compliance with the FCC’s regulations, interpreters log out ten minutes before their shift is scheduled to end. These ten minutes are used to clean up their stations and turn in their Logs (which I discuss further in chapter 5).

In addition to filing paperwork and cleaning their stations, interpreters are often assigned specific chores to be responsible for during these ten minutes. These chores include cleaning the microwave, wiping down the refrigerator, rinsing out the coffee maker, or straightening up the magazines. Each interpreter is assigned a specific duty and must initial next to her or his name on the Duty Roster once the task is complete. Some interpreters, like Theodore, a freelance interpreter, refuse to clean up after their colleagues; Theodore sees this practice as arising from the manager’s needs rather than those of the center:

The contract that I signed says that I will come here and interpret calls. I don’t clean up. I will clean up after myself. I don’t clean up the microwave. If I were to use the microwave, ever, I would clean up my mess. If I drank the coffee I would clean up after myself but since I don’t, I am not going to clean out the coffee maker, the refrigerator, or the microwave. Those duties are a result of the call center manager who is a neat freak and really irritated by messes. Which is the situation for a lot of the “policies” (air quotes) that we have here. They really aren’t policies as much as they are personal preferences by management.
Most of the people I asked about the assigned duties laughed and said they typically just signed their initials. There were a few people who saw this as a part of working for Ease Communication and did it without complaint.


Here, I have laid out the environment in which VRS interpreting occurs, provided an overview of personnel in the center and their responsibilities, and described some of the work interpreters perform during an ordinary shift. Although each provider may choose to set up its offices a little differently, the underlying theme is that the call centers are designed to produce billable minutes and to be a space where people perform work. This is done by providing enough information in the cubicles so interpreters do not have to leave the cubicles and can continue to process calls. Additionally, the centers are set up in such a way that deaf callers can rest assured that their confidentiality is being maintained, although, occasionally interpreters circumvent the confidentiality procedures established by the FCC. Despite the isolating design of the centers, interpreters find ways to connect to one another; they use Instant Messaging, the technology that is intended to track them, to promote a sense of community in the center.

There are a lot of different people who occupy space in VRS centers. Each person has a function that, when done correctly, produces a service that deaf and non-deaf people can access. However, this also means that interpreters have to learn each person’s role and function so that they can get the support they need, when they need it. Furthermore, scheduling that is intended to cover the unexpected call volume so that the center is in compliance with the regulations set by the FCC sometimes leads to interpreters stepping on one another, which can lead to tension. The Floater Station represents the recognition that there are going to be more interpreters than needed for a given shift. As in any community, there are territorial conflicts, which are exacerbated when population density is high.

All interpreters multitask. They are receiving a message in one language and producing its equivalent in another language in real time. They now find themselves having to master one more thing, technology. For some interpreters this can be a rather simple task, and for others it can be daunting. In this new method of service delivery, interpreters are regulated in such a way to produce a non-person who acts as a go-between for the deaf and non-deaf person. They find themselves without control over for whom and when they interpret. The call distribution program used by Ease Communication (and other VRS providers) does not take into account that interpreters are not interchangeable. There are times when an interpreter should not accept a call even if she is the next one scheduled to receive it.

With the advent of VRS, my colleague’s statement about “interpreting everything from birth to death” is now more accurate. However, what was once thought of as a relationship between two people who do not share a language, and thus use the services of a third person (see Baker-Shenk 1991; Humphrey and Alcorn 1994; Hilder 1995; Stewart et al. 1998), must now be understood as a web of relationships that spans multiple locations and involves multiple actors who are not immediately present. In the chapters that follow, I continue to explore the roles and experiences of these multiple actors, as well as the regulatory policies and texts that coordinate their activities. In the next chapter, I report on deaf people’s experiences with VRS.

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