Help for deaf, hard-of-hearing workers

Each time you call Library of Congress Senior Cataloguing Specialist Alex Richey, you might hear a different voice on the other end of the line. Yet Richey said those words have never seemed more like his own.

Richey is one of 17 deaf or hard-of-hearing employees at the Library of Congress who have begun using video-relay service (VRS) technology. The system allows them to communicate with one another using sign language or transmit a message in sign language to an interpreter, who relays it to a hearing colleague via a standard phone line.

Library of Congress officials say the program, which started earlier this year, represents a significant improvement over older text telephone systems that required deaf employees to type their messages.
“With this new video-relaying system, it’s much faster,” said Richey, who was born deaf. He participated in a phone interview using VRS.

“Everything just happens simultaneously, and the transmission time is really quick,” Richey said, adding, “I’m hooked, I’m addicted.”

Unlike other solutions the library has tried, VRS doesn’t have a programmable computer, which alleviates concerns about hacking normally associated with peer-to-peer videoconferencing systems, officials say. The system’s equipment was supplied free by Sorenson Communications, a VRS company that is compensated from a fund established by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

Library officials say they hope other agencies will consider the public/private partnership model as an example of how to expand access. About 13,727 employees who are deaf or hard of hearing work in the federal government, according to the Office of Personnel Management.

Heidi Burghardt, vice executive director at Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Government, an employee support group, said security concerns have caused some resistance to VRS technology. However, agencies that have implemented the technology have found ways to manage the security risks, she added.

Burghardt said her group is conducting a survey of its members to determine which agencies offer VRS technology.

Gallaudet University, in Washington, D.C., which specializes in meeting the needs of deaf students, has been a leader in the use of VRS. King Jordan, former Gallaudet president, said the technology has drastically changed how deaf and hard-of-hearing people communicate.

“It’s absolutely life-changing,” he said during a phone interview using VRS technology.

Jordan, who lost his hearing as a young adult, said he could not begin to describe how many times people had hung up on him before he began using VRS.

“If the technology is cumbersome, people are not as likely to fully communicate,” said Eric Eldritch, access programs manager at the library’s office of workforce diversity. “This technology is leveling the playing field and allowing people to communicate as naturally as possible between two languages that used to be mutually exclusive.”

Times have changed for Richey, who began working at the Library of Congress more than 40 years ago when the only way to communicate was by writing. “There’s a huge difference,” he said. “It’s so much better now. There’s always going to be a communication barrier, but this is a way to bring it down.” 

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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