Sight translation by Mary Luczki.

Communication Technology: A Brief History

Many older deaf and hard of hearing Americans remember relying on their families, friends, or neighbors to make a simple phone call. Today, deaf and hard of hearing people are empowered by having more accessible telephone products and services, including hearing aid compatible phones. In the last 20 years, a wide range of voice, text, and video relay services and technologies have also been developed that enable consumer choice of language and mode of communication to access the telephone network.

In 1987 California became the first state to mandate that text relay service be provided to any and all deaf and hard of hearing individuals.  In 1990 Title IV of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) mandated a nationwide system of text-based telecommunications relay services, referred to as teletypewriters (TTYs), to make the telephone network accessible to people who are deaf or hard of hearing or who have speech impairments. Initially, TTYs were utilized, however this technology had limitations, such as the inability to communicate non-verbal cues.  Conversations required a specific protocol: one person types, followed by the next. It is nearly impossible to interrupt, interject, talk over each other or have the same degree of spontaneity that two people signing experience.

Functional Equivalency and Video Technology

New technologies gave consumers choices:

  • Voice carry-over; hearing carry-over
  • Captioned telephone service
  • Internet-based communication through text relay services (Internet Protocol or IP Relay)
  • Video relay services (VRS)

VRS improves upon TTY relay by allowing the deaf person to sign to a relay operator, who in turn speaks to the hearing party. Conversations can occur simultaneously, and greater nuances are captured. Also, for many deaf people, not only is signing their preferred method of communication but for many, English literacy is an issue. Since 2002, VRS in the United States has been funded by the taxpayers and regulated by the FCC (U.S. Federal Communications Commission).

These relay services enable deaf and hard of hearing individuals to communicate in a manner that is as close to “functionally equivalent” as possible to the communications enjoyed by hearing telephone users. Relay services also provide access to 9-1-1 emergency call centers, operate 24/7, are provided free to relay users and comply with strict confidentiality requirements.

The Arrival of VRI

In addition to telephone services, more recent technology has introduced an even more diverse mode of communication through the use of interpreters.  Video Remote Interpreting (VRI) uses videoconferencing technology, equipment and a high speed Internet connection with sufficient bandwidth to provide the services of a qualified interpreter, usually located at a call center, to people speaking and/or signing distinctive languages at a different location.

Since the inception of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, federal law has required publicly funded entities to provide accessible communication for deaf and hard of hearing individuals.  For people who communicate primarily in American Sign Language, qualified interpreter services may be necessary. When in-person, and on-site interpreting services are not immediately available, VRI now provides an alternative solution in the form of off-site interpreting services.

VRI is currently being used in a wide variety of settings including:

  • Hospitals
  • Physicians’ offices
  • Mental health care settings
  • Police stations
  • Schools
  • Financial institutions
  • Workplaces

Due to the technical nature of these specialized settings, VRI interpreters often have specialized training.  Entities may contract for VRI services to be provided by appointment or to be available “on demand” 24 hours a day, seven days per week.  As such, there are significant possibilities for the use of VRI technology and services.