Relay Services and Hard of Hearing Folks: Why Don't They Want to
You may recall that just a few months ago I was ecstatic because a
couple of Deaf organizations had recognized that the language of some of
their public communications was inappropriate, and they took the effort to
correct the situation!
Referring to Video Relay Service (VRS), which requires users to sign,
Telecommunications for the Deaf, Inc. (TDI) had published a press release
that stated, "VRS is the first telecommunications relay service that
enables individuals who are deaf and hard of hearing to communicate in
their native language, American Sign Language (ASL)." When advocates for
hard of hearing (HOH) people (of whom only a tiny fraction sign)
confronted TDI with the fact that hard of hearing people don't sign, TDI
realized the error of their statement and corrected it. You can read the
complete story of these events at http://tinyurl.com/2xgklt
A short time later, Hamilton Relay wanted to hire a CapTel Outreach
Coordinator. CapTel is a relay service for members of the HOH community,
who do NOT sign. Yet Hamilton wanted to hire a person who was fluent in
ASL! Again the HOH advocates objected, and again, a Deaf organization
acknowledged the soundness of our position and corrected their behavior.
See http://tinyurl.com/2zm43h for the complete story.
About this time we HOH advocates were rejoicing, because it appeared
that the Deaf organizations really were interested in supporting the needs
of Deaf AND hard of hearing folks. And press releases claiming that hard
of hearing people use ASL and benefit from VRS were notably absent for a
Sadly, they're back!
A recent press release from Sprint and HOVRS claims that VRS allows "a
deaf or hard of hearing person to communicate freely and expressively,
utilizing the linguistic richness of his or her native language."
And one from CSD states that VRS offers "the most sophisticated level
of communication access possible for deaf and hard of hearing travelers."
It's enough to make you want to puke.
I know I'll get a bunch of emails from people stating these press
releases are ok, because their brother's second wife's hairdresser knows a
guy whose mechanic's sister-in-law is hard of hearing and uses VRS. Their
argument is that it's ok to make those claims as long as they can find one
hard of hearing person who uses VRS, and they were able to find one!
The reality is that these claims are oppressive to the 98% of the
hearing loss community who don't sign, because they prevent progress
towards truly effective telecommunications solutions that DO work for hard
of hearing folks. Members of the general public and people in positions of
power see these press releases and believe that VRS solves the
communications problem for EVERYONE with hearing loss! So attempts to
acquire solutions that actually do work for HOH folks are doomed to
The folks who claim that VRS is THE solution know better. We and others
have been educating the folks at the Deaf organizations for years. We've
explained that VRS is inappropriate for virtually the entire HOH
community. We've explained that claiming HOH folks can use VRS prevents
them from getting solutions that really work. And yet the deceptions
Which leads me to ask why representatives of some Deaf organizations
knowingly act in ways that prevent a significant portion of the nation's
32 million hard of hearing people from having communications access. Do
they think that the only way to get communications access for the one out
of a hundred members of the hearing loss community who uses ASL is to
oppress the 99 out of a hundred who don't?
Or is there more to it than that?
The fact is that the relay service provided for ASL users is far better
than that provided for non-ASL users. VRS is a wonderful technology that
does provide functional equivalence to the signing community. Hard of
hearing folks use amplified phones, TTYs, and CapTel. For people with mild
to moderate hearing loss, amplified phones are a pretty good solution. But
for the millions of people with severe to profound hearing loss, no
commercially available technology approaches functional equivalence.
The sad part of this situation is that a solution that provides
functional equivalence for many of these folks is readily achievable.
Imagine if you could replace the phone with a live person who stood in
front of you and voiced, with very clear speech and mouth movements,
everything said by the person you were talking to (You would not hear that
person, only the person in front of you.) She doesn't mumble, she doesn't
talk with gum in her mouth, she speaks clearly and with good projection,
and she even substitutes words that are easy to lipread for words that
aren't. A phone conversation would be like a one-on-one conversation in a
quiet room with one of the clearest speakers you've ever had the pleasure
to talk to. Would that be a functionally equivalent solution?
Of course, the relay companies can't actually send you a live person
every time you want to make a phone call. But they can send a virtual live
person to your computer screen. This person would have all the attributes
described above, and would revoice everything said by the person you were
talking to. Again, you would hear the revoicer only.
I realize that it's probably not quite as good as the live person in
the quiet room, but I think it's pretty close, and far better than the
services currently available. I've described this service to
representatives of several relay companies, and I've seen it discussed on
some of the email lists. And I've never heard a single objection to it for
any reason. The relay companies know about it, they agree that it would
work (or at least don't dispute those who claim it would), and yet I don't
know of a single company that has experimented with such a system or has
any plans to!
What I have heard from relay representatives LOTS of times is that VRS
as currently implemented is just fine for HOH people. Just ask the
interpreter to stand close to the camera and lipread them! You won't have
any audio, of course, because current VRS doesn't provide audio, but you
CAN lipread, right? It'll work great!
So why haven't the relay companies stepped up to provide a service that
really accommodates HOH folks, rather than asking HOH folks to accommodate
the service they provide? Could it be that they'd rather collect the $6.64
per minute VRS reimbursement than the $1.29 per minute reimbursement for
traditional and CapTel relay?
No that's not a typo in the previous paragraph. The VRS reimbursement
rate is $6.64 a minute, or just shy of $400 an hour! Monthly VRS charges
(June 2007) are $35 million, or roughly $100 per month for each ASL user
in the country.
Is that something the relay companies would rather people didn't know?
Do they think people would object to a program that consumed $420 million
tax dollars last year ($1200 for each of 300,000 potential VRS users)?
Is it an easier sell if they spread the $420 million annual cost over
32 million DeafAndHardOfHearing people for a per person cost of only $13?
Is that more palatable than the actual cost of $1200 per ASL user?
How many people actually use VRS? Is it as many as half of the
country's ASL users? One-forth? How many ASL users have the required high
speed Internet access and video camera? Is the cost per actual user $2500
Would the relay companies intentionally neglect to provide appropriate
relay services to 32 million HOH Americans to protect their share of a
$420 million pot? Oops, the estimate for next year is $550 million.
Is advocating the relay companies to do the right thing the wrong
strategy? Should we be lobbying the regulators?