Jeff Kelly used to tell his girlfriend, Terri Vincent, that before calling him at work, she should "be prepared with what you want to say."
Kelly, a 29-year-old Frederick resident, wasn't being rude; he was just acknowledging the time-consuming nature of their calls. Because Vincent, 25, is deaf, she had to type her message into a computer or hand-held pager and transmit it over the Internet to a go-between in a remote location. This intermediary would call Kelly, read Vincent's words to him and then keyboard Kelly's reply into a computer and forward it to Vincent.
This slow, cumbersome process, known as Internet protocol relay (IP Relay), stripped conversations of emotion, nuance and spontaneity. But many deaf people who are comfortable with American Sign Language (ASL) have begun using a faster, easier system called video relay service (VRS), one of several emerging technologies designed to improve life for people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing.
To reach Kelly from her home in Frederick, Vincent now uses a videophone connected to a standard television monitor. When her call to a VRS interpreter is connected, Vincent's TV shows a split screen of two live images: the interpreter on one side and Vincent herself on the other. (The videophone includes a camera and transmits images over a high-speed Internet connection.)
Using sign language, Vincent asks the interpreter to call Kelly, who is frequently away from his office and available only via cell phone. When Kelly answers, the interpreter signs his words as Vincent watches on her screen. When Vincent signs back through the videophone, the interpreter voices the message on to Kelly with little pause.
Finally, Kelly said, "it's a normal conversation."
"This technology just really puts us on a level playing field," said Vincent in an interview assisted by an interpreter.
Lisa Marie Wilson, 27, a financial management specialist at the National Institutes of Health, agreed. "The videophone has changed the deaf community's lives -- changed our world," said Wilson, speaking through a VRS interpreter.
VRS is free to the deaf through the Americans with Disabilities Act. According to the Federal Communications Commission, 7,215 minutes of VRS interpretation was used in January 2002, the first month the service became generally available. By June 2005, usage was up to 2.1 million minutes.
Thanks to VRS, a phone conversation with a deaf person is no longer a dry, impersonal affair. One key reason is that VRS lets deaf people express and perceive mood and personality. Contrary to common belief, said Billy Kendrick, an interpreter at Visual Language Interpreting in the District, ASL is not English represented word for word through signs but rather a language all its own, with signs representing nuanced phrases and thoughts.
Meaning is also conveyed by how a deaf person uses space while communicating. For instance, signing "is generally enlarged when there's high emotion involved," like excitement, anger or shock, Kendrick said. A VRS interpreter might speak sharply or slow down his speech for emphasis to convey those feelings to the hearing party.
How many people use ASL is unknown. "Researchers in the field of deafness are confident [that the number is] more than 250,000, and would be surprised if it were more than 1 million," said Ross Mitchell, a research scientist at Gallaudet Research Institute, part of Gallaudet University, a college for the deaf in Northeast Washington.
Wilson says VRS has allowed her to remain close and communicate regularly with family in Boston.
"My family [all of whom are hearing] really prefers video relay services over the text relay services," said Wilson through a VRS interpreter. "The sign language interpreters can see if I'm happy or sad and can relay that in their interpretation." (When face to face with family members, Wilson said, she signs and speaks simultaneously.)
With text communication systems such as IP relay or e-mail, said Wilson, "misunderstandings happened quite frequently." Even with family members, Wilson said, she often had to tell them explicitly, "I am happy."
Another plus: With VRS, "I can interrupt" before the translator is finished, just as people routinely do in spoken conversations, Wilson said. "With text relay, I can't do that," since the messages would become garbled. This ability makes even mundane calls -- like getting insurance quotes -- a lot easier, she said, probably cutting in half the time needed for such a call.
Robert Rice, president of BayFirst Solutions, a District-based management and technology consulting firm, is deaf and often uses phone interviews to screen job candidates. He appreciates VRS and a Web camera/computer variant instead of a videophone.
"Trying to do a phone interview was extremely difficult" with text communication, Rice said through a VRS interpreter. "Now, I can see the personality [of the candidate] on the phone by way of the interpreter."
Rice cannot actually see the job applicant, but the interpreter aims to convey more than just the hearing person's words.
"A good VRS interpreter will indicate via a roll of the eyes or an exasperated facial expression that the candidate is bored," Rice wrote in an e-mail. "The twiddling of the thumbs or a twirl of the hair may be expressions chosen by the interpreter to indicate extreme boredom, if it is clearly sensed in the candidate's voice." Sometimes, he wrote, an interpreter will "state directly [in sign language] . . . if the hearing candidate seems enthusiastic, bored, polished or inarticulate."
The speed of the new technology improves communications, too. With text-based calls, said Claude Stout, executive director of the advocacy group Telecommunications for the Deaf Inc., or TDI, most deaf people could type "40 words per minute. But now, with VRS, we sign . . . about 200 words per minute."
Continued Stout, through an interpreter, "With VRS, there's no lag time, no delay, [so hearing] people in the community are willing to call us. They don't feel dread in calling us -- that translates into employment and education opportunities."
But Rice points out that with demand for VRS interpreters high -- this is also true for services like in-person interpreting in schools and hospitals -- initiating a call can take patience: "Sometimes it can be forever. This morning, I had to wait maybe five to 10 minutes."
Some deaf people have taken the interpreter out of the equation altogether when speaking with other people who know ASL: They simply sign to one another through videophones or Web cameras.
"I have a friend who lives in Minnesota," Wilson said via a VRS interpreter. "Through the videophone, I can see my friend as well as her baby. . . . Since I can verbalize, I call [the baby,] who is hearing, and she will look up and walk toward the [videophone] -- a wonderful experience, really."
Old and New
VRS doesn't mean the death of IP relay or older text-based formats like TTY (a tool that typically lets a user see only one line of text at a time). For instance, TTY is the only way for deaf people to call 911 directly, since Internet technologies make it difficult to identify a caller's location.
Despite the awkward features of the IP relay system, Kelly and Vincent aren't ready to abandon it; unlike VRS, IP relay is something Vincent can use when she's away from a computer screen or videophone. Her T-Mobile Sidekick pager allows her to place IP relay calls and send and receive other types of text messages.
For all of the new system's virtues, there still are times when even a skilled VRS interpreter just can't do a fully convincing job.
For Kelly, it's "most awkward, when [his girlfriend's interpreter is] a man," he said. In that case, Kelly might hear a male voice saying: "I love you, baby. I'll see you later."