Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

June 6th, 2006 By Greg Livadas

When Kris Frei wants to talk to a friend across the country, she simply sits in front of a Web camera and begins using sign language.

Thousands of Americans who are deaf are finding video relay to be an easier and cheaper alternative to making calls via text telephones, or TTYs. Like many deaf people sold on video conversations, Frei doesn't have use for a telephone anymore.

"It's easier," said Frei, of Henrietta. "We can sign. We can communicate with our native language. And I like to see the facial expressions."

When Frei needs to call someone who doesn't know sign language, she uses a video relay center with sign language interpreters who make the calls for her.

The popularity of video relay services has exploded in the past four years. About 7,200 minutes of video relay were used per month when video relay began in January 2002, according to the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates the service. By December 2005, more than 3 million minutes of video relay were used per month, with eight companies providing the service.

It's a booming business, with two video relay centers in Henrietta and more companies expected nationwide.

The potential for growth is tremendous because the service is used by only 10 percent to 15 percent of deaf people.

While the service is a boon for deaf users, its explosion carries ramifications:

  • Shortages of interpreters available to work in the community.
  • Millions raised from every U.S. phone bill to help pay for the services.
  • A discontinuation of some 24-hour video relay services if companies aren't reimbursed as needed to provide the service.

In Henrietta, dozens of sign language interpreters convey messages to and from deaf and hearing people nationwide. The companies opened centers here, where they could draw qualified interpreters from the area and other upstate communities.

The Rochester area has about 300 professional sign language interpreters; more than 100 are on staff at Rochester Institute of Technology's National Technical Institute for the Deaf.

"We have to go where there's a pool of interpreters," said Pat Nola, president and CEO of Sorenson Communications, a Salt Lake City-based company that opened a relay center here in February.

Communication Services for the Deaf, based in Sioux Falls, S.D., opened a video relay center in Henrietta in 2003.

Interpreter need

Some think that the dozens of interpreters working in the call centers are draining the local pool of interpreters available to work in the community. Each center relies on more than 30 interpreters who work full or part time. They travel from as far away as Syracuse, Buffalo, Ithaca, Elmira and Binghamton to work at the centers, which has caused interpreter shortages in those communities as well.

Nancy Berlove, who owns Sign Language Connection, one of several local companies that hire interpreters for community needs, said there was a shortage of interpreters locally even before the relay centers opened.

"Requests are not being met, the interpreting pool has dwindled, so you end up pushing the noncertified people a little more," she said. "You can't substitute for skill and experience."

Berlove said the rates paid to community interpreters ? currently ranging from $35 to $45 an hour, although they don't work 40-hour weeks ? may have to rise to keep them working in the community rather than in the video relay centers, which can provide a more attractive work setting.

"You don't have to drive, park, pay tolls. ... I can schedule myself for five hours in a row with VRS, and you have the support of other interpreters. ... It's really a nice environment," Berlove said. "It's so variable in the community."

Funding source

Video relay calls are free for the users, paid for with funds from phone companies and a small charge on land and cell phone bills. TTY users who opt to place calls through traditional relay centers have to pay for long-distance calls, although the rates are adjusted to reflect the longer times needed to have a typed conversation.

Fina Perez of Henrietta said video relay calls are much faster than traditional text telephone calls. Some deaf people may be uncomfortable using English, which may not be their first language.

"Before video relay, there were a lot of misunderstandings," Perez said.

Video relay consumers don't pay to use the service per minute as they would a long-distance TTY relay call "because there is no geographical correlation with the Internet," said Gregory Hlibok, a lawyer with the Disability Rights Office at the FCC.

The relay providers don't have the technological means to identify the caller's originating location, so no billing mechanism is in place.

Like many deaf people, Anthony Di Giovanni, 35, of Rochester keeps a text pager on his hip; his thumbs can type an e-mail or instant message in no time.

"When I'm fishing in a boat out on the water, who am I going to call if I need help? I'll use this," he said. "Thank you, America! It's a wonderful country!"

He can thank every person who pays a phone bill in the United States. The FCC has $441.5 million to pay relay providers this year for their services. About half of that goes to video relay services, with the rest going to more traditional TTY centers. The money is obtained either through a fee of 10 or 15 cents collected on every phone bill, or as a telephone company's overhead expenses.

The Americans with Disabilities Act says relay services must be available at no extra cost to the user, but video relay could be viewed as a luxury, Nola said.

Hlibok, himself deaf, said video relay is considered a necessity to many users of American Sign Language because of its quickness, as opposed to traditional TTY relay. An insurance claim through TTY relay could take up to an hour, whereas video relay could take as little as 15 minutes, he said.

Video relay companies used to get paid $17 a minute for each call they relayed. But that figure is now set at $6.11 a minute, a low figure that may jeopardize the current services provided, Nola said.

The FCC has received from the National Exchange Carrier Association, which oversees the fund, a proposal of $386.3 million for relay funding through June 2007, with plans to reimburse video relay firms $6.13 a minute for their services. Traditional relay centers, using TTYs, would be reimbursed $1.26 per minute.

"I'm a bit nervous that companies like ours might not be able to offer an effective service for the future," Nola told a room full of video relay users during an open house at the new center in Henrietta recently. "We don't care in the long run which company you use. We need to be able to protect the service as a whole."

From The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. Reprinted with permission. Back to Article List