Frustrating Signs at the FCC


By Suzanne Robitaille Many deaf people will tell you that video relay -- which allows them to communicate by phone in sign language -- is one of the greatest tools ever invented. Stephen Hlibok is one of those people. A vice-president in Merrill Lynch's (ML) Global Private Client Group in Columbia, Md., he uses video-relay service (VRS) to "talk" with his hearing clients.

Hlibok connects to VRS -- a free, public, on-demand telecommunication service -- with a videophone that sits on top of a TV in his office. Via a high-speed Internet connection, he dials up a call center, which enables two-way live videoconferencing with a sign interpreter, who then contacts the hearing party via a standard phone line. The interpreter relays the conversation to Hlibok in sign language.

For Hlibok, the ability to sign his conversations instead of typing 50 words a minute on a text-based telephone (TTY) has dramatically improved his job performance. "When I first had an interview with my manager 16 years ago, he showed me he could make 10 calls within 30 minutes, but I could only do one TTY conversation in 30 minutes," Hlibok says. With VRS, he says, "my calls have quadrupled."

LOCATION MATTERS. Philippe Montalette, a software engineer at Sun Microsystems (SUNW), also loves VRS. He uses it about three hours a day to talk to his managers and co-workers or to listen to company presentations. The difference between him and Hlibok? Using it to communicate with colleagues, since Montalette works from home. "Before I used VRS, I had to go back to the office for meetings and arrange for [on-site] interpreters," says Montalette. "It was too much work to do."

Why can't Montalette use VRS in his office? Title IV of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires equal telecom access for the deaf, everywhere, including the workplace. According to the Federal Communications Commission, VRS is the functional equivalent of a regular phone call. But here's the catch: VRS can be used only for phone calls between parties in two different locations, according to the FCC.

So while the nation's 28 million deaf and hearing-impaired individuals can use VRS from their homes and offices, they can't use it in daily meetings and presentations when they're under the same roof as their co-workers. For such events, the FCC says the deaf should schedule an interpreter to come to their offices, as Montalette used to do.

Of course, getting an interpreter isn't only a lot of work, it's also expensive: At about $75 an hour (with a two-hour minimum, plus travel expenses), an in-house interpreter can be anything but a cost-effective and convenient solution.

NEGLECTED ALTERNATIVE. In some ways, FCC oversight of VRS is a good thing. The service must meet rigid technical and customer-service standards, including round-the-clock access over a heavily secured network. Interpreters must be competent to handle all types of subject matter, and all calls have to be confidential. Quality and speed are important, too, since sign language involves rapid hand, arm, and finger movements, as well as changes in facial expressions and lip movements.

Phone companies such as AT&T (T) and Sprint (FON) and video-technology outfits like Salt Lake City-based Sorenson Media supply the equipment and operate call centers that employ certified sign interpreters. Through a federal fund administered by the National Exchange Carrier Assn. (NECA), a pool of telecoms, providers are reimbursed about $14 per minute. In fiscal 2004, NECA set aside $115 million to compensate providers for providing telecom services to the deaf.

Yet the FCC's rules can alsoackfire. Not everyone can work from home, as Montalette does. And the FCC won't fund or regulate video-remote interpreting (VRI), a lesser-known service that offers the deaf another way to connect with colleagues. VRI is designed for communication between people in the same room -- colleagues, for example, or a doctor and patient at a hospital.

UNTAPPED POTENTIAL. VRI, which is offered by select sign-interpreting agencies, uses a high-speed Internet connection to link a deaf employee to a VRI sign interpreter via a videoconference. Unlike VRS, which is designed for two-way communication over a phone line, VRI is more like a transcription service for the deaf, relaying what is being said in meetings to them in sign language. The cost per minute is $1.75 to $3, usually sold in 15-minute blocks. Employers who use it foot the bill for the service and equipment.

The FCC contends that because no physical phone call is being placed to an outside party, VRI is out of its jurisdiction. While the agency may be sticking to the letter of the law, it's hardly true to the spirit of the law. Without regulatory standards, VRI will never be as useful as VRS. It's not an on-demand service, its use must be scheduled ahead of time, and interpreters aren't required to be certified or to take every call.

Also, the FCC is balking at the high cost of VRS. Last June, it temporarily slashed VRS compensation rates to $7.75 per minute from $14, and put the rates under review. NECA says one of the reasons VRS is more expensive is because its interpreters are available on-demand and highly skilled, which means higher labor costs. But the FCC says VRI and VRS are "essentially the same" services, so they should have similar costs.

BIG BENEFITS. The FCC's hands-off approach keeps VRI from reaching its potential as a workplace tool for the deaf. The agency should consider opening up a separate pool to fund more highly skilled VRI interpreters and some on-demand services or to reimburse companies for video-conferencing gear. In Britain, government grants cover 80% to 100% of the cost of services, adaptations, and equipment required by disabled people for the working environment, including VRI.

Why not let deaf employees tap into on-demand VRS call centers, even at a higher cost per minute to their employer than VRI, or during limited hours? Advances in broadband and video technology make this an increasingly viable and cost-effective choice. As more employers seek to comply with the ADA and offer "reasonable accommodations" to disabled workers, they will be more open to bringing video-relay gear into their offices and conference rooms.

Access to on-demand interpreting at the office -- whoever pays and however the call is routed -- will help deaf employees stay on top of their game. For the deaf, a wider range of options for video relay at work add up to a richer work experience, better productivity, and maybe even a glowing yearend performance review. Robitaille is a reporter for BusinessWeek Online in New York


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