Your 50-Cent Contribution

Sign language interpreter communicating with a deaf caller.
(Picture courtesy of

Bridging the communication gap with the hearing world has always been at the forefront of deaf and hard-of-hearing people’s efforts to utilize technologies to communicate with hearing people. Thus, it is so appropriate that, in the context of recent news, my first real post on my new blog would be about Video Relay Services (VRS), a type of videocommunications technology that has made a major difference in my life and career by enabling me to use the telephone almost like a hearing person. Just before Thanksgiving, 26 people in the VRS industry, several of whom I know, were arrested by the FBI on charges of defrauding the U.S. Government of $50 million through false claims of reimbursement for VRS operations. The impact of this news may put VRS under greater scrutiny, as the funds that make VRS a reality are mostly subsidized by you and me to the tune of approximately $0.50 per telephone bill — money that may have gone directly into the hands of alleged criminals.

Since Alexander Graham Bell invented it in 1876, the telephone has been a blessing and curse for deaf and hard-of-hearing people. Bell, long active in education for the deaf, developed the telephone by accident, as part of an effort to enable deaf people to hear sounds better. Paradoxically, the adoption of the telephone across the world resulted in an increased sense of isolation among deaf people, as those with hearing increasingly relied on telephones as a primary means of communication for both business and entertainment to the point where the phone became a basic part of people’s lives.

Today, many deaf people view the telephone as an obstacle to their ability to communicate with hearing people in the world at large. They have embraced new technologies that were created to get around the telephone, such as TTY’s, amplifiers, and e-mail. Video relay services, popularly known as VRS, are the latest technological achievement, taking advantage of the power of broadband Internet. Through videocommunications technology that is streamed over the Internet, VRS enables deaf and hard-of-hearing callers to communicate over the telephone with voice telephone users. Sign language interpreters appear on a computer screen, translating every word the hearing caller is saying to the deaf person.

VRS has significantly changed the way I work, for the better. As someone who has established a career in the highly communicative world of finance and business strategy where the typical job description requires excellent oral and phone communication skills, not being able to use the telephone and follow meetings have been major challenges that call for creativity and ingenuity. Until I started using VRS extensively in 2004, I utilized various arrangements that enabled me to follow meeting conversations and use the phone for limited calls. They were not the best solutions, they were clumsy and awkward (and in the business world, off-putting), but they were the best available out there. Now, I can carry on conversations outside the confines of my office (where before I relied on e-mail communication which was far less personable), listen in on conference calls, and even make a training presentation by phone to 80 people around the world which is what I did at American Express. I am not a skilled phone communicator, yet — a lifetime of not using the phone will do that to you — but I am learning on the job and it has been eye-opening.

VRS became a commercial reality in 2002, with the mass adoption of broadband Internet and the establishment by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) of a fund administered by the National Exchange Carrier Association (NECA). NECA collects revenue from a specific tax on U.S. telecommunications companies and redistributes it to corporations that provide and operate VRS services based on the amount of call minutes used. In many cases, the telecommunications companies pass the tax on to consumers, disclosed on telephone bills as a “surcharge for funds for deaf & hard of hearing services.” (Hence the $0.50 on your bill.) VRS companies in the United States who are eligible to receive these funds include Sorenson VRS, Purple Communications, and ZVRS.

VRS has its roots in text-relay services (TRS), which were first employed on TTY’s in the mid-1980’s and migrated to the Internet in the late 1990’s with the adoption of Internet Protocol Relay (IP Relay). TRS and IP Relay services utilized typists who transcribed the hearing caller’s words on the screen letter-for-letter for the deaf caller to read via TTY (phone line) or computer (via Internet). Like VRS companies, TRS companies were funded by revenue from NECA.

When TRS was implemented, NECA set a rate of approximately $1.50 per minute to reimburse operators for their TRS services to deaf and hard-of-hearing callers. When VRS went interstate in 2002, the FCC approved NECA reimbursements for this new market and set a higher rate of between $6.50 and $7.00 a minute due to the substantial operating costs of administering video-based call centers. These amounts, which work out to $390-$420 an hour, are set on an annual basis by NECA, based on an understanding of the costs of running the relay services, with the intent of giving companies participating in the program a level of profit that would be reinvested in the business to ensure continued operation of the relay services.

Demand for VRS among deaf/HH callers boomed soon after implementation of the NECA program. As demand continues to increase, many startups have jumped into the fray, most of them without certification by the FCC, but with the expectation of being certified in the future so they would start receiving revenue from NECA.

With no previous precedent for monitoring video-based relay calls to ensure that the reimbursable minutes submitted to NECA are legitimate, the VRS industry is very much like the Wild West, with minimal policing by the FCC and the potential for fraudsters to take advantage of the attractive $400-per-hour rate. Now that the VRS fraud case is national news, some deaf people are justifiably worried that the FCC will reconsider the NECA reimbursement program and implement restrictions which could put many VRS companies out of business. Some people who otherwise have not heard of VRS might conclude that this is not a good use of the taxes levied on telecommunications companies and call for this program to be discontinued, especially as the U.S. works its way out of a nasty recession and is dealing with major government deficits.

This is no help to the deaf and hard-of-hearing people who rely on the VRS system to communicate with the hearing world. What is sorely needed in this industry is accountability, of which little existed until the FBI got involved. As the VRS fraud indictments resolve themselves through the legal system, the good news coming out of all this is that, based on what I have heard from those in the know, VRS companies are implementing stricter policies governing the submission of reimbursable minutes to the U.S. Government, and paying stronger attention to other VRS issues such as the quality and training of the sign language interpreters themselves.

If there is no effort to improve accountability in the VRS industry, it’s not just you who will get cheated out of your telephone bill money even if it is just 50 cents. Deaf and hard-of-hearing people would get cheated out of the right to equal access by telephone that hearing people take for granted. That, at least to me, is worth more than 50 cents.

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