Spokane Journal of Business

Deaf-assisting facility here looks to boost its presence

Center’s interpreters here use sign language in calls

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Sorenson Communications, a Salt Lake City-based provider of communication products for the deaf and hard of hearing, is trying to raise the profile of a year-old video relay service center it has opened here, says Spokane VRS Interpretive Center director Bronwynn Shew. 

VRS enables deaf and hearing-impaired people to make and receive phone calls, Shew says. The center’s American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters assist deaf people with phone calls via a camera phone, videophone, or with an Internet connection and a television. 

When a call is made to or from a deaf person, the center picks it up and an interpreter appears on the screen. The deaf person signs to the interpreter, who then speaks the message to the recipient. The recipient then responds, and the interpreter signs the reply back to the deaf person. 

“Say a hearing person makes a phone call (to a deaf person): it goes directly to one of our interpreters,” Shew says. “Whichever interpreter receives that call goes ahead and connects to the person who’s deaf, and will interpret the call between the deaf person and hearing person.”

Ann Bardsley, a Salt Lake City-based spokeswoman for Sorenson Communications, says Sorenson has more than 100 centers around the country, and employs more than 5,000 people total, which Bardsley asserts makes it the largest private employer of sign language interpreters in the world. The center here is located at 16201 E. Indiana, in Spokane Valley, but Bardsley declines to disclose the number of employees there.

The Spokane center opened at the end of 2013, Shew says, and held an open house there on Jan. 14 of this year as part of an effort to raise awareness about the service.

“It takes some time to get everything up and running,” Shew says. “It took some time before we were able to offer (the open house). In the beginning, we focused on getting the center built and everyone trained, all of those things, and after about a year, we could open our doors and show what we do.”

The recent open house was attended by about 200 people, Shew says, from the deaf and hearing-impaired community as well as interpreters and students. Volunteers from the center’s staff gave tours and demonstrations of how VRS works, Shew says, as well as answered questions about getting the service set up.

“I think a lot of people who weren’t familiar really liked the tour and seeing the call,” she says. “It was a fake call, but they were really blown away by the process.”

The center provides the equipment necessary for the service to the deaf person, Shew says. 

“We provide the deaf community with the equipment,” she says. “We get it set up in their homes and routed so it goes directly to our service.”

The hearing person who’s either placing or receiving the call can use a regular telephone, Shew says; no video component is required. 

The service is provided at no cost to the deaf and hearing-impaired community, Shew says. The Federal Communications Commission pays for the service, she says, as part of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The act mandates that the deaf have access to functionally equivalent communications equipment. 

“The goal is to have it functionally equivalent to what hearing people use every day when they make a phone call,” she says. “So let’s say they were calling a train station to get a schedule, and it’s a menu: press one for this, etc. We would interpret everything … that empowers them to understand how the phone menu works just like we do.”

With the service, deaf people can call and chat with family members, make appointments, and anything else a hearing person can do with a phone, Shew says. 

The center also offers what’s called voice carryover and hearing carryover service, Shew says. This service is used by people who go deaf or have hearing impairment later in life, and are capable of doing their own speaking, she says. 

“The interpreter doesn’t do any of the speaking, they just sign,” she says. “The deaf person can watch that and then voice back directly to the hearing person (on the call).”

Shew says most of the interpreters at the center work part time. 

“We have several people who do educational interpreting or community interpreting, and then work here too,” she says. Sorenson Communications also is careful not to pull too many interpreters from independent work when it opens a center, she says. 

“We have to find an area where there’s enough interpreters to support the community,” she says. “We don’t want to take all the interpreters out and leave none for the community.”

Shew says that working in the center can help interpreters better their skills, because it exposes them to different regional sign dialects and allows them to practice both sign and voice communication at the same time. 

“One of the things our interpreters say they really love is knowing when they’re going to work and when they’re getting their paycheck, because that can really ebb and flow with the independent work,”  Shew says. 

Working at the center also helps interpreters keep up with trending topics and events, she says.

“One of the things that’s important in VRS is to be up on what’s happening,” Shew says. “(For example), we’re brushing up on the signs that relate to the Super Bowl … it’s kind of fun.”

Before the invention of VRS, deaf people used a service called TTY, or text telephone, Shew says. 

That system required the deaf person to type out a message, and an interpreter would read it to the hearing person on the other end of the line. The hearing person would then respond verbally, and the interpreter would type the response back to the deaf person. 

“It was a very cumbersome process for a couple reasons,” Shew says. “They have to wait so long while the message goes back and forth.”

She says, however, that the biggest issue with TTY was that deaf people were using their second language, typing, and not their first, which is sign language. 

“With VRS, they are speaking their native language, which is ASL,” she says.

Katie Ross
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Reporter Katie Ross covers manufacturing, hospitality, and government at the Journal of Business. An outdoor enthusiast and snowboard fanatic, Katie is a recent graduate of Gonzaga University.  

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