Using Relay Services for the Deaf

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If you're deaf or hard of hearing, you may know that not too long ago, making a simple phone call was a real challenge. 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.

That changed when the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), passed in 1990, mandated the establishment of the nationwide telecommunications relay service (TRS) for people with hearing or speech disabilities. The TRS is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). 

Today, this relay service is available in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. territories for both local and long-distance calls. The service is free to its users, with costs covered by either a state or a federal funding source. 

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. Almost all relay services involve an operator, called a communications assistant, who passes the call content back and forth between the callers.

Accessing Relay Services 

Using a regular telephone, you can access a traditional relay service 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, by dialing either 711 or a toll-free number. (The FCC 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 -- for example, the T-mobile Sidekick -- may have free software installed (example: i711) for contacting relay services without using instant messaging.

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 available as well.

Some deaf people, particularly skilled American Sign Language (ASL) users, say that making relay calls via sign language video relay services is quicker and more effective. 

Examples of Relay Services

A number of companies offer relay services.

The ones listed below are examples, not a comprehensive list. 

Most relay services offer multiple options (web, traditional, and video). 

There's also a Federal Video Relay Service, for federal employees (FedVRS.US/).

Some wireless relay services (from Sprint Relay, IP Relay, and Hamilton Relay) do not use instant messaging. Instead, an application is downloaded or installed on a cell phone.

Telephone Numbers for Relay Service Users

The FCC 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 in meetings. There is a Federal Relay Conference Captioning service and a commercial one, available through Sprint Relay.

Captioned Telephone (CapTel) Service

People who have some residual hearing and can speak clearly can use a captioned telephone. It is not suitable for people who are deaf.

The Captioned Telephone (CapTel) service 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 a special telephone with a text screen to display near-instant print captions of what the caller is saying. The CapTel user is able to hear and read the words at the same time. 

Issues Related to Relay Services for the Deaf 

Lack of Public Awareness. One problem facing users of relay services for the deaf is that the hearing public is largely unaware of the existence of relay services. The 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 after hearing only a few words. Why? Because they think the caller is trying to sell something.

This happens often when I'm making a relay service call. I've been hung up on abruptly, accused of trying to sell things, and more. Even elderly relatives who know I'm deaf have not realized when I was 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. 

Relay communications assistants usually give a brief "explaining the relay" speech to hearing people at the start of a call, and this is what can sound like a sales pitch. One solution is to instruct the communications assistant, prior to making a call, not to announce it as a relay service call. 

Because of the more direct nature of a sign language relay call, sign language video relay services are said to minimize the "hangup" problem. 

Criminal Abuse of Relay Services. Relay services have also been abused by criminals, who've 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 is in the blog posts "Scam Artists Threatening IP Relay Services" and "Still More Relay Service Problems."


“Consumer Guide: Telecommunications Relay Service.” Federal Communications Commission (2015). 

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