Increasing VRS for the Deaf

Deaf individuals communicate through sign language or contact friends and family by video calling. The call is automatically routed over the internet through a Video Relay Service (VRS) to a sign language interpreter that communicates the message to the hearing person. The VRS interpreter voices everything you sign to the hearing person and signs back everything that the hearing person says. 

One hundred and twenty five million minutes of these three way calls took place last year between deaf and hearing persons. Most calls are routine, but calls to 911 using 911 VP can save lives in an emergency.

In emergencies, a third person is needed to make a call and a third person is not always available. However, digital technology has opened the door to making an emergency call without a third party relay interpreter, but still the capability to make emergency calls is very limited.

Another issue hindering the deaf is that most federal agencies do not have direct video access for those who communicate in sign language nor do most companies. Since June 2014, the FCC has been operating a video-equipped “ASL Consumer Support Line” to enable consumers who use ASL to get their inquiries answered by signing to FCC staff who then communicates back in ASL.

The internet has made this process easier. Instead of requiring a special phone to make the call, any person who is deaf can sign over the internet using any computer or mobile device with a camera.

“Based on the advancement of technology, now is the time to expand direct video calling beyond the FCC and make it available to all levels of government and companies who answer consumer inquiries. As a result, the FCC is embarking on a year-long two part process to expand direct video connectivity for deaf, hard of hearing, and speech disabled individuals who communicate in sign language or ASL”, as reported by Tom Wheeler, FCC Chairman.

By next year, the FCC expects to have an application usable on any fixed or mobile operating system that will bring up a list of participating agencies and companies. The ASL-user will need to click or tap on who they want to talk to and then the call will be connected to someone fluent in ASL. For those receiving the calls, the platform’s open APIs will enable easy interoperability.

According to the FCC Chairman, “The SBA and other federal agencies particularly those agencies with high call volumes, like the SSA and IRS should consider offering direct video calling as well.”

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