Spreading the word

When Angela Officer talks about the Federal Relay Service, people listen.

She has been marketing the service, which helps hearing- and speech-impaired people use telephones, to federal agencies since Sprint won its first five-year FRS contract in 1993.

Officer, deaf since birth, learned American Sign Language in college and delivers her message with the help of a Sprint interpreter.

"I'm a consumer and I know what relay is and how to use relay. I can express to them how it works and why it works," said Officer, FRS senior program manager in Sprint's Government Systems Division.

Officer has been working closely with Patricia Stevens, the General Services Administration program manager for FRS since 1995, and the two say their work is a model for government and industry cooperation. Although FRS is a prime example of meeting the Rehabilitation Act's Section 504 regulations, which require federal agencies to provide reasonable accommodations for disabled people, it also falls under Section 508, which requires agencies to make their electronic information accessible. FRS is the link to the Federal Telecommunications System for hearing-impaired, deaf or speech-impaired employees and enables users to communicate with others in a variety of ways. "We fully understand the implications of Section 508 because we have people at Sprint who have disabilities and are users," Officer said.

The service was established in 1989 as the Federal Information Relay Service and was operated by GSA. But as demand at federal agencies grew for a service that would provide a link between hearing and hearing-impaired federal workers, GSA awarded a competitive contract to Sprint to operate and market the service.

The federal government employs about 16,000 deaf or hearing-impaired people, about 1 percent of the total workforce. FRS handles about 15,000 calls per month. A deaf individual can dial a toll-free number from a telephone equipped with a text display, choose a male or female communications assistant, and type the number of the calling destination into the text telephone. The FRS attendant then completes the call, reads the hearing-impaired person's text messages to the hearing person and types the hearing person's responses. That is one service offered by FRS.

FRS now has more than 18 account managers who are deaf or hearing- impaired, Officer said. Working together, they have created other features for federal workers, such as a service to allow FRS callers to retrieve voice mail and access cellular and Sprint PCS phones.

Under the contract, Sprint is required to visit 80 percent of federal agencies in Washington, D.C., to educate workers about the service. Officer also attends several conferences and has helped create an educational video about FRS.

"It's a challenge to be able to spread the word," Officer said. Sprint and GSA recently sent letters signed by a GSA Federal Technology Service official to agencies asking them to link to the FRS Web site from their own sites, she said. "Now with Section 508, that's spreading the word, and people are learning about us as a good example of meeting compliance."

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