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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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Sue’s practice of scheduling more interpreters for a given time period than she needed is one way the different centers exert control over their work. Even though she did not contact the other centers to tell them she was unable to fill all her slots, she was “hopeful” that they overschedule when they can, like she does. Scheduling over the number of allotted interpreters at one time and not being able to find enough interpreters at another time balances out in the end.

The scheduling system focuses on numbers and was developed and implemented by people at headquarters who have likely never worked in a VRS center as interpreters; therefore, it is unlikely they understand the full ramifications of the practice. The process of scheduling at Ease Communication continues to evolve. The technology that predicts call volumes has become more sophisticated and thus has reduced the flexibility of video relay schedulers. Rather than allot individual centers a portion of the needed interpreters, people at headquarters now put out a call for a total number of interpreters needed during a given time, just as Jake suggested. As interpreters are scheduled or schedule themselves via the online bidding system for these shifts, the number of available slots is decreased by one automatically. This ensures a more accurate accounting of the number of interpreters needed and hired for a given time period.

In order for the various forms of technology to work successfully, there must be an accurate tracking of interpreters and the time interpreters are available to accept calls. To track this, management uses various texts to make interpreters and the system accountable. The Log, according to Sue, is a mechanism used by the scheduler to “adjust” interpreters’ time sheets. Much like the practice of balancing one’s checkbook, the scheduler cross-references the report produced as interpreters log in and out, also known as the Productivity Report, and the Log. Although this practice is referred to as “adjusting,” it is actually a way for Ease Communication to accurately reflect what interpreters are doing and accurately bill the FCC. I will discuss these tracking and surveillance texts in more detail in chapter 5.

Once interpreters are inside the center and have begun to work at a station, they continue to interface with various machines and programs that are used to produce a textual account of their presence in the center, and connect them to other interpreters and to the callers.

Instant Messaging

The call distribution program is not the only technology interpreters interface with while performing the task of processing calls. Because interpreters, while sitting in their cubicles, may be unable to see if someone needs assistance, is on break, has left for the day, or is available to help out on a call, Ease Communication uses Instant Messaging (IM) technology so that interpreters can “see” who else is in the center and keep track of them.

After logging into the computer, but before accepting calls, interpreters are supposed to log into the IM program. Using the IM program, they can see how many interpreters are on break and whether the ratio of interpreters working to interpreters on break is such that they can take a break. One document that is taped to the wall in the cubicle is a document that explains how to use the Instant Messaging program correctly. It provides interpreters with information about what “Online,” “Busy,” “Be Right Back,” and other statuses mean. It also outlines how many people can be on break at one time. This practice ensures there are enough interpreters available to take calls.

As I discussed earlier, the IM program also allows interpreters to “see” who is available to assist with a call or who is the point of contact for the center if there is no supervisor on site. This is useful when a caller wants to talk to a supervisor to file a complaint or provide praise. In actuality, the person acting as a supervisor is another interpreter who has agreed to be the point of contact for the center.

Each interpreter in the center is assigned Point of Contact (POC) duty on a rotating basis. Any person, except an interpreter-in-training, can be a POC. The POC usually is only the POC for three or four hours of her or his shift. There is no pay increase for doing this and no additional authority. The ability to call on someone else who is the acting supervisor allows interpreters to give the perception that they are elevating a caller to the next level. In addition, interpreters are able to contact one another when they are unable to understand either the deaf caller or non-deaf caller and ask for assistance. This is all done by sending IMs back and forth. While interpreters can refuse to be the POC for a number of reasons, it does provide interpreters with additional responsibilities and perceived authority. For this reason, few interpreters refuse POC duty.

Not only can interpreters use this system to “observe” their colleagues, but they can send IMs to each other, as a group or individually. During slow times, I carried on conversations with interpreters in the center that ranged from my plans for the weekend to participating in my dissertation research. In some cases, interpreters “meet” each other for the first time in cyberspace. In this way, this technology allows interpreters to feel connected to one another despite the isolating layout of the center.

RECEIVING A CALL

After logging into the computer and the IM program, making sure they are on camera, and fitting their headsets on, interpreters are ready to begin accepting calls. Again, because the schedule is carefully calculated to ensure there are just enough interpreters to cover the predicted call volume, the wait for a call is typically minimal.

Call Setup

“Call setup” refers to the period when the interpreter is connected to only one of the callers and has not dialed the intended party. This is the time when the caller (deaf or non-deaf) communicates with the interpreter before the other individual is called. This period includes the deaf caller telling the interpreter what number to call and who to ask for, the actual dialing of the number, and the phone ringing or giving a busy signal.

Those first few seconds of interaction between the deaf caller and the interpreter are crucial to a successful call. When a caller is already annoyed because she has had to wait for an interpreter, the interpreter’s ability to defuse the situation immediately helps ensure the call will go smoothly. Otherwise, the tension could run over into the call.

Billable Time

VRS providers cannot bill the FCC until both callers are connected. Therefore, to ensure that VRS providers can bill for the interpreter’s time, once a call appears on an interpreter’s computer screen and is accepted (i.e., not returned to queue) the computer initiates a clock. This clock tallies that amount of time the interpreters spend “setting up the call.” After thirty seconds the clock begins to flash on the computer screen to remind the interpreter that he has not placed an outgoing call yet and is not billable. Here is an example from my field notes of such a situation:

The deaf woman comes up on my screen. She seems nice. She is older. I would say she is in her early seventies. (I am not good at determining age.) The woman says, “Hello.” I respond, “Hello. Thank you for using Ease Communication, Inc. I am interpreter number 9999.” The woman tells me that I sign very well. She then tells me that she is going to call her doctor. She continues, “I was supposed to call my doctor yesterday but I got busy. Then when I got home it was too late. I hope they are not upset that I didn’t call yesterday.” Halfway through the caller’s explanation, the computer begins to flash. I can see it in my peripheral vision and know that it is warning me that I am not billable. I choose to ignore the flashing light and continue with the brief dialogue with the caller.

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