The differences between text relay and video relay are so vast; it amazes me how the FCC and, in turn, the VRS companies continue to treat VIs (Video Interpreters) like CAs (Communications Assistants; i.e. text relay operators). The effects of this treatment are sometimes unrecognized until something happens to remind an interpreter of what it’s like to feel like… well, like an “interpreter” again, rather than an “operator.”
Recently, I took a break from my regular video relay interpreting job to interpret in a seminar for which I was requested by the client. The client and I had professional and social relationship that went way back. While on that job, I experienced emotions that I had long forgotten as a VI: the pride in being asked for by name and the joy of being wanted for who I am, not just for what I do.
What is the point of anonymity when the deaf client can see you? At some point, they are bound to find out who you are; what’s more, if you are active in your profession, they should find out who you are! Sign language interpreters are professionals who bank their businesses on their professional reputations. They make a name for themselves by publishing, doing community service on the boards of interpreting organizations and governing agencies, teaching classes and workshops, mentoring new interpreters, and socializing within the deaf community. Text relay operators, or CA’s, do not need to do any of these professional activities, and they are literally invisible to their clients. It makes sense for them to be anonymous. It does not make sense for video interpreters, who are visible on television screens in people’s homes all over the country, to be nameless. Interpreters who follow the NAD–RID Code of Professional Conduct are never truly anonymous, as they are active and visible members of their communities.
Anonymity robs from us what many of us have spent years to develop: our names, our “reputations.” We become known to our consumers and colleagues. In the “real” world, hearing and deaf consumers ask for us by name. We develop rapport and relationship with our consumers. There is nothing like walking into a room and seeing that the hearing and deaf consumers are genuinely happy to see you, and there is nothing like the feeling of genuine happiness at seeing your deaf and hearing consumers. When I work in the community, I often feel as though my deaf and hearing consumers are my professional colleagues. Yes, they are my consumers, and I am working for them, but I am also working with them, chatting with them when I am not interpreting, eating lunch with them, and truly enjoying their company. We work together toward the common goal of communication which leads to effective action.
Granted, there are clients, both hearing and deaf, that I do not enjoy working with. I would be a charlatan if I claimed that I felt happy to see each and every client. Yet, for the most part, even with clients that I would never socialize with outside the interpreting situation, there is a relationship. It is a relationship of mutual respect and trust. The understanding seems to be, “We will be working together for the indefinite future, and we will treat each other kindly so that this event will be as successful as possible. I know that we will probably work together again, so I will not do anything to jeopardize our relationship.” What comes along with anonymity? A lack of relationship. If you never see me again maybe you won’t be as careful with me. There is no relationship to nurture. There is no trust to build.
What happens when an interpreter cannot be requested? That interpreters loses out on one of the main perks of being a professional: the satisfaction derived from serving clients well and developing relationships so that clients want to work with the provider again. Being asked for by name is one of the most rewarding feelings a professional can have, in my experience. It means that I engaged the client in a relationship of trust, respect, and satisfaction. It means that I succeeded in making a good name for myself. It means that I get the pleasure of working with someone who wants to work with me. It means that I am a human being, not a machine. When a client cannot request their favorite interpreter, that client loses out on the benefit of a relationship that they have invested in with a provider that they trust to serve their communications needs. I would go a step further and assert that these relationships fulfill more than just our communications needs; they fulfill our deepest social needs.
The intent of Title IV is to further the Communications Act’s goal of universal service by ensuring that individuals with hearing or speech disabilities have access to telephone services that are “functionally equivalent” to those available to individuals without such disabilities.
Maybe it is time to reconsider the metaphor of a VRS call being functionally equivalent to a telephone call and the video interpreter being functionally equivalent to a dial tone. Why not look at it as functionally equivalent to an interpreted speech event such as a meeting? In real-world interpreting, the clients, either deaf or hearing, often have some say as to who interprets for them. They can request their preferred interpreter. They can meet with the interpreter ahead of time to establish rapport and mutual understanding, both linguistic and interpersonal.
What might be the drawbacks to identifying interpreters by name? Some would argue that identification by name would endanger interpreters, that violent callers might know who they are and hunt them down, that if callers knew which center an interpreter worked in, they might break down the door of that center and physically abuse the interpreter. To me, these scenarios seem far-fetched. If one is to assume that knowing an interpreter’s name and location leads to physical danger for the interpreter, then why is it that interpreters have been working in communities for years where everyone knows who they are and where they live, yet none of these interpreters have been harmed? (I imagine maybe some have been harmed, but I have never heard of it.) How is it that the members of the RID board have their home addresses and phone numbers listed in professional journals such as RID Views, yet no harm has come to them from disgruntled consumers or practitioners? I think we need to give our consumers some credit. I say that if an interpreter’s name can be known to clients living in that interpreter’s own home town, how much safer is it for that interpreter’s name to be known to clients living in far-flung regions of the country?
What would be the drawback to allowing consumers to request interpreters by name? Some might argue that it might hurt consumers’ feelings if they requested a specific interpreter and the interpreter, in turn, rejected the request. Certainly this might happen. I trust interpreters to use their professional discretion in accepting or rejecting assignments with clients based not on favoritism but on their ability to interpret for those clients in a faithful and impartial manner. If an interpreter has such strong feelings against a certain client that they feel that they cannot interpret for that person properly, then they not only may reject the client’s request; they must reject it. Video relay services may already allow interpreters some method of screening incoming calls. Perhaps if a client could request an interpreter by name, they might feel rejected if the interpreter didn’t take the call. One might argue, however, that if a client is being rejected by a number of interpreters, then maybe that client needs to reconsider their role in the process; e.g. is their lighting too dim, their video quality too poor to read, or their behavior abusive?
Perhaps some interpreters would spend much of their shifts interpreting for those who request them by name, and other interpreters would get the “leftovers”— those who either did not request a specific interpreter or were unable to get their first choice. There might then be hurt feelings among interpreters. I say let us allow some Darwinian theory to apply here. These feelings of inadequacy at not being requested by name might be just the impetus interpreters need in order to step up their levels of linguistic and cultural competence, interpersonal skills, customer service, and relationship-building. In other words, why not allow for a process of natural selection and survival of the fittest? Wouldn’t this type of healthy competition be beneficial for both consumers and providers alike?
I invite the FCC and VRS providers to ask their deaf and hearing consumers what they want. I invite the deaf community to tell the FCC and VRS providers if they would like to be able to request their favorite interpreters by name. (If you get lost on the FCC website, search for where to comment on “Telecommunications Relay Service (TRS) Docket 03-123.”)
The FCC may view VRS as a progression of the text relay service tradition because that is their frame of reference. The ASL interpreting profession, however, views VRS as a progression of their tradition of providing interpreting services to the deaf community because that is their frame of reference. I am not saying that one viewpoint or the other is right or wrong; what I am saying is that the FCC and the ASL interpreting profession need to listen to each other, and both the FCC and the interpreting profession need to listen to their clients. What ultimately will succeed, in my opinion, is that which is most adapted to the human needs of both consumers and providers in the “real” world.