Video Relay Services is a federally-subsidized service that allows deaf and hard of hearing users to have conversations over the phone with the assistance of a sign language interpreter. If the deaf person uses video relay to call another person, then he or she will be calling using a computer or a television, and there will be a sign language interpreter shown on the screen who follows the conversation. The sign language interpreter signs what the hearing person says, and the deaf person can see the translation and then respond by communicating in English or sign language. In the former case, no additional action is needed from the interpreter, as the callee should hear the deaf person. In the latter case, the interpreter watches what the deaf person says, and then verbally relays the information to the other party. To the callee, it is like having a normal phone call.
This sounds like a tremendously beneficial service for deaf people, and I admit it: I should have been using Video Relay Services a long time ago. I signed up to use Video Relay in February, and have used it four times so far. Since it’s June now, that might not sound like a lot, but for someone who used to make about one phone call a year to a non-family member, it’s significant.
The reason why I took so long to embrace Video Relay had to do with initial perceptions. I learned about Video Relay in 2008 when a staff member from Sorenson VRS gave a presentation about it to the deaf and hard of hearing students in my high school. I soon had it installed at home, but probably made only three calls. At that time, I had to use a specialized television screen with a specialized camera and a complicated remote, and the video quality left much to be desired.
Nowadays, it’s much easier because there are applications that allow me to use Video Relay from my laptop. I use Video Relay like I use Skype: I open the software on my computer, sign in, make sure my camera is working, and dial the desired number. The software will not call the number immediately, because it first has to connect to an available sign language interpreter, who will then make the actual call to the callee. It should not take more than five minutes to connect to an interpreter.
As I explained earlier, one can use video relay by signing or speaking to the interpreter. I use the latter case, which is technically called Voice Carry Over. This is my preferred communication mechanism, because my English is better than my ASL, and signs can turn choppy and distorted across a monitor.
To get started with using Video Relay, I signed up with Z5 Desktop and downloaded their free application for my Macbook Pro laptop. I had to first verify my address and related information with a staff member via video relay. We talked for a little while (in sign language) and then he officially gave me the go-ahead to start using the service. The whole setup was much easier than I expected. Surprisingly, he never asked me for documentation regarding my hearing loss, and as far as I know, only deaf and hard of hearing people are allowed to use Video Relay.
I suppose the lack of accessible software was a valid reason for avoiding Video Relay Services, but again, I should have used it once I went to college and had my own laptop. I can remember many cases when a simple phone call might have made things so much clearer for me. Yet, I would often settle for wading though a mountain of documentation and sending emails with long turnaround times. As far as technical difficulties are concerned, I have not had any problems so far. My one concern with accommodating the communication needs for deaf people is that there are some who do not know sign language. They would still struggle in cases when people only give out a phone number for contact information. But for someone with my background, Video Relay Services takes care of a lot of my needs, and I am thankful for that.