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Internet Relay Services

Making Calls with Convenience


Updated April 11, 2014

Long ago, making a simple phone call was challenging. If you were lucky, you lived in an area with volunteer relay services. But it could take hours to make a phone call because of the long line of callers ahead of you. When no relay service for the deaf was available, you had to rely on the kindness of hearing friends or relatives.

Types of Relay Services

There are two types of relay services: traditional and broadband, high speed video. Traditional relay services have all communication in text only, through a TTY or via the internet. A video relay service uses a videophone or a webcam, and a sign language interpreter.

Accessing Relay Services for the Deaf

Using a regular telephone, a traditional relay service can be accessed 24 hours a day by dialing either 711 or a toll-free number. The Federal Communications Commission has a fact sheet on using 711 to contact a relay service. Every state has its own relay service. An internet relay service can be accessed via a relay service website or instant messaging. Video relays are accessed by contacting the relay service via a videophone such as a VP (Sorenson) or the Ojo (Snap!VRS). Some cell phones such as the T-mobile Sidekick may have free software (example: i711) installed for contacting relay services without using instant messaging.

Relay Services for the Deaf Issues

Lack of Awareness

One problem facing users of relay services is that the general hearing public is largely unaware of the existence of relay services. Relay services have tried to increase awareness through public service announcements and commercials. However, it is still common for a hearing person to hang up on a deaf relay user.

Often, when I am making a relay service call, the hearing person at the other end of the line does not realize it is a relay call from a deaf person. I have been hung up on abruptly, accused of trying to sell things, and more. Even elderly relatives who know I am deaf do not realize when I am calling by relay and have hung up on me.

The deaf community pays a price when this happens. I personally know deaf people who have missed out on job opportunities because of hearing people's discomfort or unfamiliarity with relay services. One solution is to instruct the relay operator prior to making a call, not to announce that they are a relay service. Relay operators usually give a brief "explaining relay" speech to hearing people.

Criminal Abuse of Relay Services

Relay services have also been abused by criminals. Criminals have used relay services to get goods delivered without actually paying for them. This has made some merchants hesitant to accept relayed credit card orders. More information about the abuse of relay services are in the About.com blog posts "Scam Artists Threatening IP Relay Services" and "Still More Relay Service Problems."

Using Relay Services

Internet text relay services offer secure online communication. Most have features such as the ability to save a conversation as an HTML file, and the ability to adjust font size and background or text color. Web-based services may offer separate chat boxes for the caller and the communications assistant, plus emoticons. Instant message relay services also allow instant message conversations to be saved. Spanish translation is also available.

Some deaf people (particularly skilled ASL users) say that making relay calls via sign language video relay services are quicker, and more effective. Sign language video relay services are also said to minimize the hangup problem that frequently occurs with text relay services, because of the more direct nature of a sign language relay call.

Examples of Relay Services

Several companies offer relay services, and the ones listed below are examples. Most offer multiple options (web, traditional, and video). This is not a comprehensive list, and relay services are a business in which companies get bought, sold, and go out of business. There is also a Federal Video Relay Service, for federal employees (FedVRS.US/). There are also wireless relay services from Sprint Relay, IP Relay, and Hamilton Relay which do not use instant messaging. Instead, an application is downloaded or installed on a cell phone.

Telephone Numbers for Relay Users

The Federal Communications Commission requires relay service providers to assign their deaf and hard of hearing users a single universal 10 digit telephone number. Having normal telephone numbers has proven extremely useful to deaf people, as it allows hearing people to call deaf people directly. It has aided deaf job seekers by enabling them to list an actual phone number on their resumes. (Before the FCC requirement was issued, some relay service providers had been providing their users with personal telephone numbers or 800 numbers).

Relay Conference Captioning

Relay conference captioning is a service that allows deaf people to participate in conference calls, reducing the need for interpreters for meetings. There is a Federal Relay Conference Captioning service and a regular one, also available through Sprint Relay.

Captioned Telephone (CapTel)

The Captioned Telephone (CapTel) is similar to a voice carryover relay service (a type of relay that lets you use your voice to talk and use the relay for what you cannot hear). CapTel uses captioning services to provide near-instant captions of what the caller is saying, giving the CapTel user the ability to listen and read the words at the same time. These captions are displayed on a screen that is part of the captioned telephone. Deaf and hard of hearing people who can talk clearly can use a captioned telephone.

Readers Respond: Video Relay Service Interpreting vs Community-Based Interpreting

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