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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 problem that could occur was that one center might be able to schedule five interpreters but had only been allotted three slots; therefore, two interpreters would be turned away. Since interpreters talk with one another, as do all employees, about their shifts (not the call contents but the call volume), it is not uncommon to hear some interpreters complaining about the number of calls they had during a given shift while another complains that she or he asked to work and was turned down. A manager, Jake, explained the process to me:
We don’t decide the number of interpreters we schedule. That information comes from headquarters. So they tell us that we need to schedule four interpreters, for example, and we do it. The problem is that if they would say, for example, that we need 120 interpreters from this time to this time then each center could schedule as many interpreters as they could until the whole 120 slots are filled. But how it works now is that they tell us to schedule four, they tell St. Louis to schedule fifteen, and then they tell [the center in] Houston to schedule six. Well then once we have scheduled our four, if other interpreters want to work we have to turn them away because we already have the four interpreters we need.
Now that Jake has explained the process, he continues by explaining the problems inherent in the current process.
Now the problem happens because maybe we got the four people, but St. Louis only got twelve of the people they needed. So then the interpreters here get slammed with calls. We are all connected, but headquarters doesn’t want to give up control over that. It would just be easier if they had a set number like the 120 and just let each site schedule as many interpreters as possible until the whole 120 was covered. That way if we have a lot of interpreters available then we could cover more than the four slots they allotted us. So we should all have the same size site; for example, we should all have twenty-five stations.
Jake’s recommendation would mean that some interpreters would not be able to get any work since scheduling would be done on a first come, first served basis. Furthermore, because the centers are not the same size those areas with larger centers and larger pools of interpreters would fill more quickly than the smaller ones.

As a manager, Jake must deal with the impact of not having enough interpreters. If there is not enough downtime or time when an interpreter can catch his breath between calls, burnout is more likely. As such, it behooves management, to an extent, to increase the time that interpreters are not processing calls. To do this, there must be more interpreters available to take calls so that the time between calls per interpreter is extended. In addition to the frustration experienced by managers and burnout by interpreters, there may be an increased holding time for callers that could violate the “speed of answer” required by the FCC.

The “speed of answer” is a measurement of the total number of seconds a call can remain in queue. The goal of the relay, text and video, is to make the telephone experience of deaf people more functionally equivalent to that of non-deaf people. Kelby Brick, director of law and advocacy for the National Association of the Deaf (NAD), along with the other members of the National Video Relay Service Coalition,14 stated in a comment to the FCC:

Deaf and hard of hearing customers are tired of long waits before they can call anybody. Speed of answer rules will provide customers with access to telephone services and be a step closer to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)’s requirement for functional equivalency. (
As a result of this comment, and others, the FCC required that by January 1, 2007, VRS providers would answer 80 percent of all calls, calculated monthly, within 120 seconds, in order to receive remuneration from the National Exchange Carrier Association. This standard assumes a great deal about the interpreting that occurs within VRS centers. First, it assumes that interpreters do not call in sick for work. When this happens, there is going to be one less interpreter available to respond to calls. Furthermore, it puts additional strain on those interpreters who are working. This means that they may experience a greater amount of burnout or fatigue. When this happens, interpreters may be apt to take more breaks during the day. This would undoubtedly increase callers’ wait time.

This regulation also assumes that there is an “average” call, with relatively little divergence from the typical call length. However, there is no way to know how long a call will take. The VRS Task Analysis Report, completed by the Distance Opportunities for Interpreter Training (DO IT) Center at the University of Northern Colorado in 2005, found that “there is no limit to the types of calls that require interpretation” (10). Calls may range from brief calls in which a caller informs a friend or family member that they are on their way to more lengthy calls that include several people discussing in detail a business agenda for nearly two hours. Although the first type of call would not interfere with adhering to the speed of answer regulations, the second would mean that at least one interpreter, or two if the call was difficult, would not be able to assist with incoming calls for nearly two hours.

Furthermore, standard practice in the field of sign language interpreting is that two interpreters work as a team for any job that requires more than one and a half hours of constant interpreting. This means that when an interpreter receives a call that is likely to go beyond the hour-and-ahalf threshold,15 such as a business conference call, she automatically calls on another interpreter to assist with the call. Another interpreter can also be called on for assistance if the interpreter who receives a call feels he cannot effectively interpret the call on his own, for example, if a deaf caller is difficult to understand because of cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, or any other distracting motor impairment, or if a deaf caller uses a particular dialect of sign language that is particularly difficult to understand. A non-deaf caller may have a thick accent that the interpreter cannot understand, or there may be a lot of background noise. All of these situations can lengthen the speed of answer of future calls while the interpreters work to provide a quality interpretation.

To meet the minimum standards set by the FCC, each center must account for interpreters calling in sick, for spikes in calls, and for calls that require more time to complete. Individual schedulers have taken up different ways to meet the needs of the centers and also adhere to Ease Communication’s own policies. For example, in anticipation of situations like those described above, schedulers schedule additional interpreters. Sue, a scheduler at one of the centers, explained to me how the process of scheduling worked:

We can schedule three [interpreters] over our target. So you can see (as she points to the schedule in front of her) here, I only needed five interpreters but I scheduled seven. Later, I needed three but I only had two. Hopefully another center was able to schedule over their target.
14. The National Video Relay Service Coalition is an ad hoc group that includes the following organizations: Telecommunications for the Deaf, Deaf and Hard of Hearing Consumer Advocacy Network, National Association of the Deaf, the Association for Late Deafened Adults, the American Association of People with Disabilities, Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Government, the California Coalition of Agencies Serving the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, the Student Body Government of Gallaudet University, and the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf.

15. All of the VRS centers that I have worked in and heard about have technology built into the computers that indicate to the interpreters that it is time to take a break after twenty minutes.

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