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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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CLAIMING SPACE

Interpreters in VRS centers carry out their work in cubicles. The cubicles are not assigned to individual interpreters, officially. However, interpreters who have the same schedule each week or who are employed by Ease Communication as staff employees rather than independent contractors will typically sit in the same cubicle and decorate it with their personal artifacts. To ward off would-be squatters, interpreters place their name and scheduled hours outside the cubicle. There is a sense of ownership over the space and some interpreters become territorial. At times, this practice leads to animosity and outright hostility among interpreters. Kathryn, an interpreter with over fifteen years of experience, has been working at Ease Communication for nearly five years. Here Kathryn describes a situation that occurred when one interpreter asked another interpreter to leave “her” cubicle:

You see, the part-timers can’t get a regular station, but the full-timers can. Sheila, I think she was a part-timer . . . yeah she was a part-timer. Well, Eleanor [who is a full-timer] came in one day and she always sat in [station] 11. Well that day, Sheila was sitting in the station. Eleanor told [Sheila] to leave. [Eleanor] said, “I am here now and this is my station.”
Even though every interpreter can, and many do, bring family photos or other personal items to place in the cubicle they are working in, part-time and freelance interpreters do not have an assigned cubicle that they will use every time they work. The unspoken policy, which varies among centers, is that full-timers get to use the same station when they are working.

As Kathryn continues, she says that even though Sheila was on a call, rather than finding another station to sit in, Eleanor stood next to the cubicle, presumably to hurry Sheila along. Sheila told Eleanor to leave — which she did, but not until she was able to collect her personal items, such as pictures that were in the station.

A sense of ownership is one reason that interpreters may have an affinity for a particular station. Another reason is that the station may be set up in such a way that makes it conducive for the interpreter to perform her or his work. For example, one part-time interpreter, Marianne, explained that she only likes to use the stations that have the computer on the right of the television screen. She also does not like to use the select stations that have the ergonomically correct keyboards because she has “trouble typing on those types of keyboards.” I, on the other hand, did not mind the ergonomic keyboards, but I typically chose a cubicle that was further away from the place where interpreters may congregate to discuss schedules, wait for a station to become available, or read the various notices posted on the wall.

Although allowing interpreters to claim dominion over a particular station for either comfort or consistency provides interpreters with a sense of belonging, it seems counter to other aspects of VRS work that aim to reduce individuality and promote interchangeability. The goal is to create an environment in which any interpreter can use any cubicle and produce billable minutes. Assigning cubicles to particular interpreters and allowing them to place personal belongings in the cubicles reduces the interchangeability. On the other hand, as Kupritz (1999) suggests, personalizing one’s space may produce a more productive worker.

Shared Spaces

In addition to the individual cubicles that are designed for interpreting phone calls, there are other shared spaces throughout the centers. These spaces have a particular function. One particular space is the break room. The break rooms provide needed respites from calls and interpreting. Interpreters who are on break at the same time can gather in the break rooms and recount information about particular calls. Even though interpreters are not supposed to provide details of calls, most interpreters would provide enough information that others who had experience with a particular caller would know exactly who was being discussed. This was often followed by others chiming in to tell about their last experience with that particular caller. Many times these callers were given descriptive nicknames. For example, one caller who liked to call and show the tip of his penis to the female interpreters was called “Dick Head,” a name that is both descriptive and insulting.

Female interpreters would sit in the break room and tell stories about their recent call with Dick Head. Often interpreters would giggle and provide each other with support as to how to handle Dick Head’s calls. On one occasion a new interpreter was being warned about Dick Head:

Diane: You are working late tonight, right?
Kimberly: Well, you will probably get a call from Dick Head tonight.
Diane: Really? What should I do?
Kimberly: It is up to you but I usually just hang up on him and send an email to whoever is in charge. They can deal with it. He really is harmless but he just likes to show you his dick.
Cathy (interrupts): Yeah, I just hang up on him.
Diane: I don’t want to see that. (giggles). I will just hang up.
Even though there is no discussion of the identity of Dick Head, both Kimberly and Cathy know who he is. This is because it is not uncommon to get calls from the same caller while working a particular shift. This is more likely to occur during the graveyard shift because there are fewer centers open and fewer interpreters working.

Other times interpreters talk in generalities and the intent is much more cathartic. For example, Tina tears up as she walks into the break room and, talking to nobody in particular, relives the call she recently received:

Wow! That was hard. I just had a call between a boy at college and his mother. He was yelling at his mother. He was telling her that she really hurt him because she never learned sign language. He said that he was glad that he went to a residential school so that he didn’t have to be around people who didn’t talk to him. He then said that the Deaf community was his real family.
Even though Tina does not address anyone in particular, we all listen intently to her story. Then Beth Ann asks, “What did his mother say?” As Tina tries to regain her composure, she says, “She said she knew. She said that there was nothing she could do — that she didn’t know any better.” As if she just could feel the boy’s pain, she says, “and then the mother just said, ‘Listen, Keith. You have been calling me for a month now complaining about this. Why haven’t you gotten over it yet?’” At this point, every person in the room started to provide their opinion on the subject. These opinions were in support of both Tina for having to endure the emotional call and Keith for having to endure his mother’s ignorance. Nobody in the room spoke in support of the mother.
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