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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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Another shared space is called the Floater Station, where interpreters wait for a station to open up. Here they can log onto the computer, surf the Internet, and submit their timecards and invoices. The Floater Station is not a separate space like the break rooms, so discussions are rather minimal. However, people do use the time here to catch up with colleagues they have not seen for some time.


Aside from the physical environment, computer technology has a significant role in organizing the work of interpreters in this setting. Technology is abundant in most offices in a postindustrial society. In VRS centers, computer technology is used to distribute calls and to predict call volume, among other tasks. The information gathered to perform these two tasks is also used to create schedules.

An indispensable component of a call center is the automatic call distribution (ACD) program (Taylor and Bain 1999). ACD programs not only direct calls to available interpreters but they can also generate reports that calculate the number of calls received per minute, predict call volume, and calculate the number of interpreters needed for a given time period. The number of interpreters needed for a given time is made available to interpreters who can then bid for shifts.

While ACD programs have streamlined the scheduling process for Ease Communication and lessened wait times for callers, these programs also strip interpreters of their discretion. Instead of depending on interpreters to determine their ability to provide an accurate interpretation, a computer program determines when and how many interpreters are needed at any given time. The current computer program does not evaluate whether the interpreters they are scheduling are the most qualified to provide interpreting; this means that a concern for covering the calls dictates who works, rather than interpreters’ professional judgment.

Call Distribution

Now, all calls to VRS centers, originating from anywhere in the world, go into a national queue. However, because the FCC reimburses VRS providers for calls, for funding purposes at least one of the parties must be in the United States.13 The call is then routed to the next available station and interpreter.

When I first began working at Ease Communication, calls were routed locally so three or four centers shared the same queue and the technology was such that I was able to see those callers waiting in the queue. That is, I could see the number they were calling to and from and I could see the name the phone assigned to the videophone used to place the call. This capability allowed me to see if the next caller was someone I could, or wanted to, work with, as well as see how long they had been waiting in the queue. In some cases, if the deaf person who was next in line to receive an interpreter was someone I knew and for whom I felt I would not be the best interpreter, based on my skill or his language needs, I chose to take the next person in line. If several interpreters did this, a caller could be waiting in the queue for several minutes. The FCC determined that this was tantamount to preferential treatment and ordered that the practice be discontinued. Now, calls are distributed based on when the interpreter logged in. The goal is that the interpreter who has been available the longest gets the next call. This practice helps with burnout. Some providers still have technology that allows the interpreters to see the next person in the queue and are able to see how long the person has been waiting, but it limits how often interpreters can “jump the queue” and skip the person who is next in line to receive an interpreter.

The call volume is higher on certain days. Typically Mondays and Tuesdays are the busiest. In addition, certain holidays, such as Mother’s Day, are extremely busy. The call distribution program helps on these days, but interpreters are still answering calls back to back. Because the hold time for callers is longer on these days, callers are more likely to be disgruntled when they finally get an interpreter. Some interpreters have chosen to avoid working on these days. On these days when the call volume is expected to be high, Ease Communication offers incentive pay to entice interpreters to work.


The scheduling process for Ease Communication has changed over the years. In the beginning, schedulers were responsible for scheduling individual interpreters by hand. As the technology has advanced, schedulers’ jobs have been limited to approving and denying schedule bids.

People’s schedules determine what they can do in a given day, week, month, and year. Interpreters cited the schedule as one of the benefits of working in VRS. More than once I was told that VRS is an ideal source of interpreting income because some interpreters can get the same schedule every week. Every VRS center I worked for schedules interpreters a month in advance, which allows interpreters to know their schedules in advance, at least for the month.

Even if interpreters are not guaranteed a particular schedule, there is certain amount of consistency with video relay interpreting. The pool of consumers, deaf and non-deaf, is large and not limited by geographical area as it is in-person interpreting. Also in contrast to in-person interpreting, video relay interpreters know exactly how much money is coming in, and they are able to schedule other jobs and errands accordingly. Furthermore, unless the technology goes down there are no cancellations in VRS. Also, since some VRS centers are open 24 hours a day and 365 days a year, interpreters can depend on video relay for a paycheck when other types of work are scarce, such as during the summer and holiday season.

As a sign language interpreter, I am used to being at the beck and call of other people’s schedules. Although I could limit my working hours to a 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., Monday through Friday, schedule, that would reduce the income I could earn. There is a lot of business that deaf people take care of during those hours; however, there are situations when deaf people use the services of an interpreter that do not occur between 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m., Monday through Friday, such as emergencies or night classes. Therefore, most interpreters who are freelance practitioners have to be willing to work around the clock. This may mean that they interpret a medical emergency at 2:00 a.m. and an 8:00 a.m. board meeting later the same day.

Interpreting in video relay service is clearly call-center work. According to Hinrichs, Roche, and Sirianni (1991), “For increasing numbers of employees the length of the working day and working week is becoming a variable or flexible feature of employment, influenced primarily by the pattern of demand confronting the firms in which they work” (4). In call centers, employees’ schedules are dependent on call volume.

When Ease Communication started providing VRS, scheduling interpreters was center-specific. That is, the national office knew how many interpreters were needed during any given period and would attempt to distribute those among all of the centers. No one center knew how many interpreters were needed nationwide for a given time period. For example, if there were ten interpreters needed from 9:00 a.m. to 9:30 a.m., one center might be responsible for finding two interpreters while another would be responsible for locating four, and still another center would be charged with scheduling four more. However, if one of those centers was unable to find the right number of interpreters, then other centers would be bombarded with calls to compensate for the number of interpreters who were not scheduled for that time slot.

13. Occasionally, both the caller and the person being called are located in other countries, such as Canada, where various video relay service providers have distributed their equipment widely. When this occurs, Ease Communication policy states that the call must be terminated, politely, but immediately.

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