Video Relay Service Connects Deaf and Hearing People in Real-Time

Published November 2, 2020

What is VRS?

Video Relay Service (VRS) is a video telecommunications service that allows people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing (HoH) to make and receive phone calls in real time. Specifically, VRS is for phone calls between hearing and deaf/HoH individuals. All it takes is a regular voice-capable phone on one end of the conversation and a camera with a monitor and high-speed internet on the other end. The camera can be video equipment set up with a TV screen or computer monitor, or it can be as simple as using the camera already in your laptop or smartphone. The screen, camera, and internet are necessary for both the video interpreter (VI) and deaf/HoH caller, but not for the hearing caller.

Under current COVID-19 circumstances, VRS can also be used in conjunction with video conferencing platforms like Zoom for meetings and appointments where participants are expected to call in.

How does VRS work?

The VI and the deaf/HoH caller can see each other on a screen (much like FaceTime, Skype, or Zoom), and the hearing caller is typically connected to the call by an audio line. There are at least three people on the line with VRS; however, the call should be treated as if the hearing caller were speaking directly to the deaf caller.

During a call, the hearing caller speaks and the VI simultaneously signs to the deaf/HoH caller on their screen. Then the deaf/HoH caller will sign back to the VI, who will then voice the message to the hearing caller. This is how the facilitation works.

In the event that someone does not answer, the caller can leave a message. A hearing person can leave a video message through the interpreter, and a deaf person can leave an audio message through the interpreter.

VRS is completely confidential and is provided at no cost to anyone who uses it. The Telecommunications Relay Service fund compensates VRS companies for minutes processed on a call. This also means the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) oversees and regulates VRS.

What do hearing people need to know about VRS calls?

When receiving or making a VRS call, it is normal to experience small delays in the conversation. A hearing person may experience a moment of silence before receiving a response because it takes a moment for the message to be interpreted. There are also cultural differences that the interpreter is mediating during the simultaneous interpretation that may cause a further delay. Be patient and take turns communicating.

It is important to stay away from saying things to the VI like, "Tell her..." or "Interpreter, can you tell him…" because it disempowers the person who is deaf or HoH. It is important to speak through the interpreter to the deaf/HoH individual, as if the interpreter were not even there. The VI is there to provide access to communication, not be a part of the discussion. Please be conscious of this when using VRS.

Deaf/HoH people will often have multiple phone numbers due to being registered with a VRS provider and a cellular provider. They may have a video phone (VP) number and a texting only number. Keep this in mind when making and receiving calls.

What do businesses need to know about VRS?

Hearing callers will often reject or hang up on a caller when they realize an interpreter is on the line (they may think it’s a security risk or scam). However, hearing callers are required by law (specifically the ADA) to process a VRS call just like any other call. Deaf and HoH people need equal access to telecommunications, just like hearing people.

When using VRS, the deaf consumer will connect with a random available interpreter who has neither preparatory information, nor an established rapport with the deaf/HoH caller. Not having the information or an established relationship with the caller can present some challenges when processing an appointment. When in doubt, ask the client what their preferences are.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, using VRS in conjunction with a video conferencing platform has become more prevalent. A person dialing in on the audio line to use VRS and joining the meeting via video line will need two cameras and two screens to participate fully, in most cases. If the deaf person who is joining a conference call, via a Zoom meeting, does not have this equipment, the organization should consider hiring an interpreter through VRI.

Another thing to keep in mind is that deaf/HoH people cannot hear the different voices talking, and a VRS interpreter is most likely not familiar with the people in the group. It is best practice to ask everyone who speaks during a conference call to state their name before they speak, so the deaf/HoH caller knows who’s speaking.

It is also important not to confuse VRS with VRI (Video Remote Interpreting). While VRS is compatible with some video conferencing platforms, like Zoom, it is wise to hire a VRI interpreter for appointments instead; especially if it is a recurring meeting or class. Most of the time, VRI interpreters have a chance to review the information ahead of time, allowing them to be more prepared. The person who is deaf can also provide a list of preferred interpreters that they have worked with before, making the communication go more smoothly. If it is a recurring class or meeting, it can be beneficial to try to have the same interpreter(s) every time. This helps with consistency and accuracy in the interpretation.

It is important that organizations host trainings on how to best process a VRS call. Having trained individuals in an organization will promote inclusivity, and it will allow people who are deaf/HoH to have a smoother calling experience.

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