Sign Language Interpreters: The Unintended Victims of VRS Regulation Change

October 1, 2012

Regulation changes from the FCC have impacted the VRS industry, providers, consumers, and sign language interpreters. Karen Kozlowski Graham questions the efficacy of these regulations in light of some of the unintented results.

About a year ago the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) implemented new rules regarding the structure and practices of Video Relay Services (VRS).  A year later we ask: Is the VRS industry a better place for having implemented the new regulations?

What Did it Achieve?

The intent of the rule was to root out fraud and make VRS a more manageable industry for the federal government. Did their action lessen the probability of VRS companies acting in a fraudulent manner? Most importantly, are Deaf people receiving better service now than they were a year ago? How did the great VRS shake-up shake out?

My VRS Story

I co-owned a company that rode on the VRS train virtually since its inception, SignOn: A Sign Language Interpreter Resource, based in Seattle.  We started out, as many things do in Seattle, with lots of collaboration, good intentions, and smudging with sage.

VRS played an important part in companies like ours because the volume of income gave us the opportunity to become a traditional workplace.

Our early endeavor with a VRS center and our community interpreting program allowed our sign language interpreters to work alternatively in the community or on a video platform; they’d get full- or part-time status complete with benefits, paid time off, and a 401K option. All that without having to track down payments from customers, find and schedule jobs for themselves, or worry about vacation time.

As are most sign language interpreters, we were intensely loyal to both our professional ethics and our consumers. It took us years to learn all the business “how-to’s”—figure out how to do the financial aspects of a business correctly and generally become a well-functioning company. Really, we just wanted to do good work and be happy.

I believe we were onto something, just something that is difficult to attain and then sustain—delivering quality services while simplifying the life of the interpreter.

Interpreters First

For nine years SignOn subcontracted with various certified VRS companies. We were considered a “white label” provider, which means we answered calls as if we were the certified provider. We rigorously upheld FCC rules and the usual high-level interpreter standards; we considered ourselves service providers–interpreting was our business. When the new regulations came down, we needed to make a decision as to whether we should try to attain certification to continue providing VRS or move away from the traditional workplace model that VRS had afforded.

To attain certification, we realized would require us to be in the business of dealing with complicated and expensive technology, wrangling with the federal government, and generally entering a faction of our industry that wasn’t in our wheelhouse. We were strong interpreters, not computer platform developers, or lawyers. That self-knowledge of our core competency led us to the decision to bow out of VRS. As a result, one of the larger VRS companies took over our call center. The community interpreting and VRI functions of our company was subsumed by a local non-profit.

The music ended and the ride was over.

Has More Regulation Helped?

So where have we all settled in? There have been numerous stakeholders in this drama: white-label providers, VRS providers who went on to certification, VRS interpreters, and most importantly the Deaf Community.

White-Label Providers

SignOn doesn’t exist in its original form any longer. In my case, I lost a livelihood. I’ve moved into a different field altogether and the days of monitoring the FCC announcements are a thing of the past. I would love to have traveled further down the road with our vision of an integrated workplace for sign language interpreters – a good place to work and a great place to grow the next batch of kick-ass practitioners. But some actors in this drama, like myself, were plumb out of luck – and out of work.

VRS Providers

One VRS provider who proceeded with certification suggested that the strictness of the rules was a challenge and perhaps limiting to efficient business operations. Requiring interpreters to be staff is often difficult in a freelance-oriented industry. Trying to discern the meaning of regulations, the increase in costs, and the impact on cash flow were some other concerns.

Sign Language Interpreters

The FCC changes definitely shuffled the interpreter deck. Their directive that more interpreters become “staff” forced a change in the composition of the VRS interpreting pool. Those sign language interpreters who wanted or needed the stability of employment took jobs at VRS companies.

Some interpreters, not liking elements of work with the bigger VRS companies (e.g. scheduling, strictness in operations) have left VRS altogether. Some of the interpreters, who had no intention of becoming freelance-only interpreters, were propelled into the freelance world by necessity. Others just needed this push to move on to full-time freelance work, something they had been considering anyway.

In my view, interpreters felt that they followed the FCC guidelines prior to the rule change and that they were no more conscientious and ethical than they were before the change. Then there was the question of home-based VRS interpreters. I don’t know what they’ve done and how they’ve compensated for losing that work.

Deaf Community

The FCC rule definitely forced a lot of hands (pun intended). How has this reshuffling affected the quality and quantity of interpreting work available to the Deaf community?  It appears as if the shift in balance moved some of the more experienced interpreters back to community freelance work as their primary source of income.  If so, how has that changed the quality of interpreting both in the community and in VRS? And then, of course, the ultimate question: Is VRS a better product for Deaf consumers now that it can be more tightly monitored?  Is there less opportunity for fraud and more control over the quality of services under the new regulations?

The Bottom Line

In my VRS story, most of our staff landed in the non-profit (providing community interpreting) or as staff at one of the remaining VRS companies – an outcome critical for SignOn’s founding owners. We didn’t want the FCC rule change and the disbanding of our company to leave anyone out of a job, and fortunately most everyone landed on their feet.  There were another 40 or so companies that scrambled to find their footing in the new world order sans VRS. Some were purchased by VRS companies pursuing certification, some dissolved, and some moved forward without a VRS complement.

My own little corner of the VRS universe went dark. I hear the groans of change and the opinions of a few interpreter survivors. I see some interpreters pining for the earlier days of VRS, while some are finding their niche in the new scheme of things. Some great interpreters have abandoned VRS altogether while others have made it their bread and butter. In the end, I’m wondering if all that hoopla was a real gain for either Deaf consumers or the sign language interpreters providing the service. It opens interesting questions and hopefully further thoughtful discussion.

My Opinion

In my opinion the changes haven’t necessarily helped. A few interpreters I spoke with said that they felt the VRS companies left in the pool would remain – and that having such job stability felt good. A few interpreters genuinely like the call center they work at – the staff and the atmosphere are good. Otherwise it seems as if the FCC changes have created more bureaucracy, without necessarily more quality. Perhaps the rule has eliminated fraud (has it?), which was its original intent, but many exemplary, law-abiding stakeholders became unintended victims.

Well, I guess you’d expect me to say all that since I lost my company. Okay, fair enough. But what about you? How have the FCC changes affected your work and your participation in VRS? Are we all better off now for the stricter regulation of VRS? Most of you have opinions. Share them.

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17 Comments on "Sign Language Interpreters: The Unintended Victims of VRS Regulation Change"

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Hello Karen, What a well written and heartfelt posting. Thank you for sharing. Our company, Soltrite, makes a VRI (not VRS) software offering. Technology only, we do not source nor manage the interpreters. We came on the scene within the last year and have slowly become somewhat literate of the VRS industry and its past. An unintended consequence of the federal government funding VRI is that these VRS companies are also in the VRI business and the technology used is very similar to what is used in VRI. This means the federal government is funding VRS companies in an indirect… Read more »

You are right, Scott. It’s very easy to co-run a VRS center with a VRI component. It works particularly well when you’re wanting to provide periodic on demand VRI work. I don’t believe the government is looking at this issue at all. But it was definitely a reason that it became very difficult for a company like SignOn to continue to provide on demand VRI. And on demand VRI is a very sought after service right now.

Ellen C Hayes
Wow! Great article, Karen. While my work was and continues to be free-lance, I too was a “some of the time” VRS interpreter who left when the changes were made. I miss that challenge. The regulations didn’t take into account the “real on the job” work done by the interpreters themselves. Instead they reacted to an event and have caused so many rules and regulations that the interpreter is now second or third in importance to the business of interpreting. Enough said…but now we are looking at VRI. There are changes in the horizon that will cause the same problems… Read more »

I thoroughly agree that the interpreter community has not had a big enough seat at either the VRS or VRI table. RID did some work during the FCC discussions and I applaud them. But overall it was a tiny percentage of the actual conversation. I don’t know how decisions can be made about video interpreting without more interpreter involvement.


[…] Sign Language Interpreters: The Unintended Victims of VRS Regulation Change From – Today, 6:14 PM […]

I can understand where you are coming from. My story began at the very beginning of the certification program. I started Snap!VRS, originally advocated for establishing the certification program. Though, many of the changes that occurred in the industry took place after I was frozen out of my companies by the venture capitalists. See the long federal lawsuit attempting to regain control of companies I started and never received payment for. Many of these heavy handed regulations came out of the FCC because of a fundamental misguided focus on the interpreter instead of the financiers. It is with a heavy… Read more »

There is no question that these regulations are quite anti-interpreter and the opposite of creative. Perhaps Janet B from RID could speak better to this but I don’t believe that any of the thoughts of the interpreter community were considered in the final regulation. Thank you for that intelligent article,Daryl.

Excellent article. I did the VRS gig for two years; during the advent of VRS. What a great experience….we had downtime back then which we used to chat, get caught up on interpreter issues, etc. The normal isolation of freelance interpreting was no more! When things started to change, became busier and more “automated” we were back to cubicle isolation. I personally left because I felt I lost control over my work. (For example, I didn’t like being reprimanded for chatting with a client while we were on hold). The permanent predictable paycheck was wonderful, but the cost too high.… Read more »
Hi Karen! Thanks for posting! I’m originally a Seattlite so have watched the SignOn activities from the periphery in E.WA. Karen Carlson and Molly McBride have been role models for me. I have no VRS experience…not willing to travel and take blocks of time away from home. I’m not seeing any difference in my area with more freelancers working in the area and declining VRS work. One comment you made about “simplifying” the interpreter’s life made me chuckle! ;oD I have a very hectic life. Simplify sounds good but doesn’t seem compatible with freelancing. If I didn’t have a husband… Read more »

I think you’re not alone is seeing the freelance life has being hectic. And it’s not always possible to have to have a spouse to get benefits or steady income. That’s what we were trying to counter. Thanks for your comment!



Gina Gonzalez
Thank you for the article. You raised many valid points and questions. “…Most importantly, are Deaf people receiving better service now than they were a year ago? How did the great VRS shake-up shake out?” The dust has not settled yet. The shake-up hasn’t fully shaken out yet. The first round of regulation changes (which is what is in effect at the moment) was intended to stop the uncontrolled bleeding of funds caused by the lack of oversight and rampant fraud/abuse. In that respect, the regulations have accomplished its intention. The stiffer regulations have managed to achieve $300M in savings… Read more »

[…] In my mind, these impacts are as real and relevant today as the day they were offered last year. In some cases, they are already being seen and experienced as shared by Karen Graham in her piece, Sign Language Interpreters: The Unintended Victims of VRS Regulation Change. […]

Thanks for your thoughtful post. Just a few things: “Then there was the question of home-based VRS interpreters. I don’t know what they’ve done and how they’ve compensated for losing that work.” JV- what we have seen is that before the changes, calling VRS yielded a non-qualified interpreter about 50% of the time. Now it is even harder to get a good interpreter for a call. “It appears as if the shift in balance moved some of the more experienced interpreters back to community freelance work as their primary source of income.” JV- Thankfully, yes. Better interpreters are available for… Read more »
Hi, When the FCC regulations shut down so many companies, I was working from home as a VRI/VRS interpreter. When everything collapsed, I was nearly out of work for awhile and I had to rebuild my sources of income. I had a great deal of supervision during my employment from home. There was always a supervisor available to me and always someone ready to team in a call if I needed it. My work setting was regulated, checked on regularly via webcam. After the dust settled, I went to work at one of the well known VRS companies. I settled… Read more »

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