Video relay lets hearing-impaired speak for themselves on phone

Technology in place—More, better-trained interpreters needed.

Sara Lenz, Deseret News, November 7, 2009

TWhen Brad Holt was just 6 years old, he was helping his mother communicate with the outside world.

His mom is deaf, and to communicate with doctors and others on the phone, she would sign to Holt and then he would tell the person over the phone what she said. Holt remembers his mom finger-spelling different words to him he hadn't learned yet — like "mortgage" — and not knowing how to pronounce them.

"You learned quickly how to live in an adult world," said Holt, whose father also is deaf.

Because of recent technology, deaf individuals who speak American Sign Language can now call anyone they want by themselves and do it comfortably using a Video Relay Service — a system that allows the deaf to sign to a voice interpreter though video equipment and then the interpreter to relay the conversation to the designated person over the phone.

Salt Lake City's Sorenson Communications, the leading VRS provider in the country with more than 100 relay centers nationwide, held a conference Saturday about the history and future of ASL interpreting. Top ASL interpreters from around the nation explained how technology has changed the way the deaf communicate. Each speaker signed while two people, including Holt, took turns interpreting the signs into English.

The keynote speaker, MJ Bienvenu, was born deaf. She is a professor at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., one of the leading colleges in the nation for the deaf and hard of hearing.

Bienvenu remembers when there were no certified deaf interpreters and when she had to use a telephone typewriter, or TTY, to try to communicate with people from her home. ASL is predominantly about body language, so typing doesn't have the same effect as signing in person.

She said VRS has helped her relationships with her family members grow stronger.

"VRS has changed our lives," said Bienvenu. "Deaf people now feel part of the world and part of American culture. We can contact anyone without feeling reliant on others."

Bienvenu stressed the importance, though, of quality interpreters. She said sometimes people leave college as ASL interpreters but struggle and even give up trying to make the jump into the profession.

Sorenson Communications is working on making that jump easier through a 15-week program it will be implementing in June called School-to-Work. Carolyn Ball, executive director of VRS Interpreting Institute, said this will be the first program of its kind.

Ball became interested in ASL while as a student at BYU a deaf person asked her out on a date. She ended up making ASL her emphasis and recently did a dissertation on how there has never been a set curriculum for ASL interpreters.

"We need a place that can train people the right way," Ball said. The institute will have training for ASL teachers, those re-entering the field and those preparing for certification.

Being an interpreter is not easy, said Chris Wakeland, vice president of interpreting at Sorenson Communications. He said the interpreter speaks in first person and has to try to meet the intent of the speaker.

Through these new programs, he said, interpreters will come out more confident and prepared. The way ASL speakers can communicate is being revolutionized, he said.

For more information about Sorenson Communications or its interpreting institute, visit or

From The Deseret News. Reprinted with permission. Back to Article List