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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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Figure 2.1 is a sketch of one of the VRS centers I worked in. The environment has typical office equipment. A facsimile machine, a copy machine, and a printer are all available for us to use. In addition to the office equipment both centers also have a break room. (One center I worked in after I completed my research does not have a break room. It only has a large table in the middle of the room where interpreters congregate to eat and chat.) The break rooms are different in size and setup and in the items provided. I was told that it was up to the center manager to decide what items to stock in the break room. For example, in one center there is a variety of snacks. The other one simply has bite-sized candy (e.g., M&Ms and Jolly Ranchers). One of the centers has a soda machine from which interpreters can purchase drinks for $1.50; the other has only a water dispenser. The larger of the two has two couches where interpreters can (and do) sleep during their breaks. The other one has a paraffin wax hand bath that interpreters can use to soak their hands in at the end of their shift to help with aches and pains related to repetitive strain injury,8 which can end an interpreter’s career prematurely. Both centers have sinks and notices about safety and the federal minimum wage on the walls.

Outside the cubicles, the walls of the centers are adorned with information about schedules, events, trainings, certification test dates and locations, interpreting-related news (e.g., conferences), and praise. Both centers have an entire wall devoted to certificates of appreciation for different interpreters. Some interpreters have multiple certificates from deaf callers. To receive these certificates, either caller (deaf or non-deaf) must send an email or call customer service and report their appreciation for the interpreter’s work. (I will return to these certificates in chapter 5, where I will discuss their uses and their relation to other texts used to monitor interpreters’ work.) In one of the centers, there is another wall that congratulates newly certified interpreters or interpreters who received another certification from RID.

In VRS centers that are regulated by the FCC, call confidentiality is a consideration. And, although the call centers are laid out in rows, they differ from traditional “call centers [that] are of necessity open-plan, with each team’s workstations grouped into cluster or row formation” (Baldry et al. 2006, 239). In traditional call centers, such as those that Baldry et al. (2006) discuss, the open plan allows for supervisors to observe several employees at one time. In contrast, each wall of the cubicles in these VRS centers is six feet high. The design is intended to prevent eavesdropping by those who pass by the cubicle and by those interpreters who are working nearby, to protect the privacy of the callers.

VRS centers are also designed to create productive workers. Another function of the six-foot walls is that interpreters are not likely to become distracted by things outside the cubicle. If the walls were lower, interpreters could look over and see other deaf people who were making calls. Furthermore, there is the potential for a deaf caller to see other deaf people if the walls were too low. Due to the height of the walls, the only way to see into the cubicles is through the door-size opening used to enter and exit the cubicles.

Since the walls are high, there are lights on top of the walls to alert others that there is a call being interpreted. When assistance is needed, interpreters can either send a message to all interpreters using the Instant Messaging program or, because of the close proximity, they can simply ask for assistance from a nearby interpreter who is not interpreting a call at that moment.

Two- and Three-Tier Centers

Ease Communication categorizes its centers by its layers of management. Whether a center is considered a two-tier compared to a three-tier center has little impact on the daily work of the interpreters, but there is a certain level of prestige, at least for management, associated with a three-tier structure. When I first heard about the tier classification, I assumed that three-tier structured centers could handle more calls than did two-tier structured centers. I was incorrect. In fact, the two-tier center I worked in, housing twenty-four stations, is much larger than the threetier center, which has only fourteen stations. In the two-tier centers, the administration consists of the scheduler and the manager; a three-tier center also has a director.

8. Repetitive strain injury can “result in carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis, tennis elbow, and brachial neuralgia” (Humphrey and Alcorn 1994, 183).


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