Video Relay Interpreting

New services for the Deaf fulfill the promise of H.323 conferencing as assistive technology

Originally published in Teleconference Magazine

Imagine walking into a McDonald’s in Beijing. You want a Big Mac combo with a Diet Coke. Since you don’t speak Chinese, you try to make yourself understood by pointing and gesturing. You hold up three fingers, for combo number three. The counter worker points to the menu board and you smile and nod. But what about your Diet Coke? You pantomime drinking from a cup, and the counter worker begins pointing to spigots on the soda fountain. Eventually—by process of elimination—you make yourself understood.

Now imagine later that night, when you want to order Moo-shu pork and fried wontons for delivery. You pick up the phone, then hang it up. It’s futile: there is simply no way you can call anyone in Beijing without help from someone who speaks the language.

For millions of Deaf people in the United States, every city is Beijing. Every day, Deaf people interact with people who don’t understand their language. They rely on lip-reading and pantomime, pointing and nodding. In a pinch, a pencil and pad of paper allows tediously slow conversations with the sign language-impaired.

But these strategies only work face to face. When Deaf people need to use a telephone, they must use a TTY (also known as a TDD). If the other person doesn’t have one of these typewriter-like devices, they have to connect through a third party, who relays the messages back and forth. Until recently, this laborious process was just accepted as part of being Deaf.

It is important to note the difference between Deaf and hearing impaired. Hearing impaired is a medical and government label. It defines a group of people by a common physical defect, calling attention to a perceived deficiency. Deaf, on the other hand, is a cultural label on par with Hispanic and Hindu. It defines a linguistic minority, a group of people who share a common language and culture, whose primary means of relating to the world is visual. In the US, American Sign Language (ASL-see sidebar) is the primary language of the Deaf community. It is impossible to understand the impact of video conferencing on the Deaf community without acknowledging that ASL is the linchpin Deaf Americans’ cultural identity.

Deaf Telecommunications, Circa Yesterday

Historically, Deaf people have been limited in their options for long-distance communication. In years past, they could mail a letter, send a telegram, or ask a Hearing person-a signing friend or relative-to make a telephone call. Neither of these options had the speed, convenience or privacy that Hearing people take for granted.

This changed in 1964, when Deaf physicist Robert Weitbrecht modified an army surplus Teletype machine so it could communicate with similar machines over a crude modem. Weitbrecht’s TTY gave Deaf people access to cheap, private communication over telephone lines. As the technology improved, electronic keyboards replaced mechanical teletype machines, and LED and LCD readouts superseded printed rolls. Today’s TTYs are high-tech, lightweight devices that provide extras such as signal lights, speed dialing, and caller ID, but still use the same one-way-at-a-time, text-only technology developed more than three decades ago.

TTYs also paved the way for TTY relay services. Jon Hodson, Sorenson Vision’s manager of sales to Deaf markets, explains how they work. “If I want to order a pizza, I can pretty much guarantee that Domino’s doesn’t have a TTY.” Hodson must place his order by calling a relay operator, who calls Domino’s for him. When Hodson types “HOLD THE ANCHOVIES GA” (GA means “go ahead”), the operator reads this message out loud for the pizza guy. When the Domino’s employee responds, the operator types the response back to Hodson.

“Most people have no concept of how cumbersome TTY communication is,” says Hodson. “The next time you call a friend, try typing everything as you say it.” Besides being slow and tedious, TTY communication is culturally incongruous. “TTYs force us to use text to communicate,” says Hodson. “If your native language is ASL, text feels impersonal, unnatural. We use TTYs out of necessity, but it’s a love-hate relationship.”

Deaf Telecommunications, Today and Tomorrow

The Internet is a boon for Deaf people everywhere. The World Wide Web, e-mail, and instant messaging have vastly expanded communications possibilities. People are now beginning to recognize the potential of Internet video conferencing as assistive technology. The notion that video conferencing systems can replace TTYs is on the verge of revolutionizing telecommunications for the Deaf.

Last year, Maryland became one of the first states to provide video relay services. Gil Becker, director of Maryland Relay, describes their nine-month trial as “moderately successful.” Twelve sites were established around the state where Deaf people could go to place video calls. Though the program averaged about 870 calls per month, Becker reports that “users didn’t like having to drive somewhere else to make a call.”

A similar program is currently operating in North Carolina. According to Jimmy Little of the state’s Public Utility Commission, the program currently boasts nine sites-all in government buildings. Pennsylvania-based Cosmic Video Inc. provides the service as well as the technology, a $2,200 system that requires dedicated ISDN. So far, the program is a slow-starter, with an average monthly usage of about 8-12 hours per location.

On September 1, 2000, the State of Texas launched a new service that takes video relay to the next level. Like the above programs, the Texas Video Interpreting Service (TVIS) provides relay services in the form of video interpreting. But unlike the programs that preceded it, the TVIS provides a way for eligible consumers to acquire conferencing equipment for their homes-free of charge.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA-see sidebar) requires states to provide telecommunications services for their Deaf residents which are “functionally equivalent” to services enjoyed by Hearing people. Earlier this year the Texas Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing amended its equipment assistance program to prepare for video relay. Besides approving new vendors to supply conferencing products, they also raised reimbursement amounts to offset the relative cost difference between TTYs and conferencing endpoints.

Interpreting for the TVIS is provided by Communication Service for the Deaf (CSD), a South Dakota-based company which already provides both onsite interpreting and TTY relay. CSD’s interpreters use the Sorenson EnVision H.323 conferencing system. EnVision is ideally suited for the program because the system maintains video quality even at very low data rates-and is priced low enough to be covered by the state’s $900 voucher.

Through the Texas VIS, Hodson could call Domino’s without once touching a keyboard. A double-click on EnVision’s directory calls one of CSD’s interpreters, who greets Hodson in ASL. Using a telephone headset, the operator calls the pizza place. Hodson’s signing is translated for the Domino’s employee, whose spoken responses are interpreted into ASL for Hodson. Simultaneous translation dramatically reduces lag time, and allows each participant to communicate in his native language. The resulting exchange is more natural, personal, and satisfying.

The Future of Video Relay Services

The National Association for the Deaf has stated that “the one thing that the Deaf and hard of hearing community all agree on is that technology has the power to provide greater accessibility, to level the playing field, and to maximize the quality of their lives.” Video relay and video interpreting accomplish all three, and the Texas program is the first to get the formula right.

Three critical changes have finally made video relay feasible. The rise of the Internet and broadband connectivity facilitate IP conferencing in general. The creation of high-quality H.323 products like Sorenson EnVision makes Internet conferencing a viable undertaking. Finally, equipment assistance programs put conferencing systems into people’s homes, ensuring that the Deaf have access to both the technology and the service.

Analysts expect that the Texas program will provide a template for all video relay programs to come. From a Deaf perspective, though, the relay program is almost a pretense for another application: person-to-person calls in sign language. Face-to-face calling is a dream come true for Deaf people everywhere, bringing a sense of normalcy to a process that has always been awkward and unnatural. “Finally, Deaf people can call other Deaf people and sign to them,” Hodson says. “Now that’s ‘functional equivalence.'”