VRS Sign Language Interpreters: An Appropriate Legal Tool?

June 3, 2014

As municipalities increasingly deal with budget constraints, many are turning to VRI or VRS for interpreting services in legal settings. Tara Potterveld and Nichola Horrell Schmitz explore the cost and efficacy of this approach.

More cities, counties and states deal with budget cuts and economic shortfalls, money designated for courts, District Attorney’s and Public Attorney’s Offices is being reduced. Unintended and often overlooked victims of these financial cutbacks include Deaf persons. Best practice to protect Deaf people’s right to due process in legal interactions is to have Certified Deaf Interpreters (CDIs) work as a team with legally certified hearing interpreters (SC:L).[1] Yet, the expense of providing sign language interpreters to Deaf persons in legal settings clashes with the need of jurisdictions to significantly reduce spending.

[Click to view post in ASL]

Denying communication services to qualified individuals is both illegal and counter-productive. As municipalities look for ways to cut costs, one area they are exploring is reducing interpreting service budgets by resorting to technology. The two predominant technologies are Video Remote Interpreting (VRI), a fee-based interpreting service that usually charges by the minute and Video Relay Services (VRS) provided by the Federal Communication Commission at no cost to users.

Video Remote Interpreting (VRI) is used more often in courts as budget concerns increase. The courts are seeing that they can save money by not paying interpreters to travel to the courthouse. Many court hearings only last 15 minutes so the courts save money by not paying the standard two-hour minimum for a team of two or more interpreters. The court pays the VRI company only for the minutes that the interpreter team is utilized. VRI can be successful if certain parameters are met such as: using a full team of interpreters (CDI and SC:L) for legal work; obtaining preparation materials before a hearing; and establishing communication with the Deaf person involved in the case before commencing. Nikki and Tara (the authors) have tried this system as a team and experienced both positives and negatives.

Video Relay Services (VRS) differ from Video Remote Interpreting (VRI). Using VRS to access interpreters is an attractive option for cash-starved entities because VRS is free of charge for courts or attorneys communicating with a Deaf person. Given this trend we must ask if VRS interactions help or harm Deaf people in legal situations. Many VRS interpreters are competent, but rarely possess legal certification.[2] Some VRS interpreters do not possess any certification[3] and thus there is no way to assess the quality and competency of their interpretations.[4] No large VRS agencies, that we are aware of, have CDIs on staff ready to handle legal calls.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) oversees all VRS companies. The FCC mandates that: “Preferential treatment of calls is prohibited. VRS providers must handle calls in the order in which they are received.” Consequently, a sign language interpreter answering the call may have little or no experience with legal issues. A VRS interpreter can call for a team to witness and assist a legal call, but there is no guarantee that either interpreter will have the skills and knowledge necessary to interpret the call accurately. From informal polling, we found that many VRS call centers do not have any legally certified and trained interpreters on staff. Granted, the FCC does not allow VRS interpreters to swear an oath of accuracy and impartiality for court proceedings, yet courts and attorneys use VRS interpreters to handle a variety of hearings and client-attorney discussions without checking into the skills and qualifications of the interpreters.

Even very good interpreters make mistakes due to a number of uncontrollable factors, including technical difficulties like video transmission problems and poor audio. VRS interpreters have no preparation time before accepting a call. VRS interpreters are not privy to documents related to the case and might not be aware of the nature of the charges. VRS interpreters cannot see the courtroom or evidence presented. The interpreters cannot see people in the court and probably will not be able to distinguish the role or context of the speakers. They only see the Deaf person involved in the case who is in a different location. (FCC rules prohibit Deaf and hearing callers from being in the same room during a call). VRS interpreters often get calls from other states and unlike local sign language interpreters, may not be familiar with the location of the crime or regional signs used by the Deaf person. According to the FCC, VRS interpreters must continually process a call between a Deaf and non-Deaf person for a minimum of 10 minutes before transferring the call to another (possibly more skilled or possibly less skilled) interpreter unless the Deaf consumer asks for a transfer.

It is troubling that VRS providers do not hire CDIs to assist in all legal calls. The FCC allows hiring CDIs, but VRS companies find it costly to have CDIs on site for legal calls. Yet, we know from research how valuable CDIs are to providing a fair and just linguistic experience for Deaf people in the legal system. Carla Mathers eloquently writes: “Undoubtedly, the legal system presents a linguistic minefield and imposes substantial barriers to understanding for most deaf individuals and many court interpreters. Even with a highly skilled legal interpreter, a deaf person may not have the framework to understand the proceedings in a manner sufficient to advise and receive advice from counsel. Deaf interpreters have rich ways of communicating that are generally unavailable even to the most skilled interpreter who can hear.”[5]

We know that legal situations have high stake implications for Deaf people’s lives. It is questionable if VRS interpreters should be allowed to handle legal calls without legal certification and access to a CDI. Balancing a Deaf person’s right to due process and a municipality’s need to reduce costs is a difficult dilemma. We as Deaf persons and sign language interpreters need to work on guidelines and laws that will protect Deaf persons. It is time for a national dialogue on issues of legal justice regarding Deaf people and whether justice is compromised by using VRS without proper safeguards.

 

 

Nichola Horrell Schmitz, MA, CDI, CLIP-R, a freelance interpreter, is fluent in ASL, Mexican and Pakistan Sign Languages and various signed dialects.

References

[1] The Mid-America Regional Interpreter Education (MARIE) Center has current research on this topic on their website, http://www.unco.edu/marie.

[2] Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf published demographics in 2011 showing of 15,617 members, only 263 held a Special Certificate:Legal (SC:L) and only 124 members held Certified Deaf Interpreter (CDI) certification.

[3] See Brandon Arthur’s article Will Sign Language Interpreters Remain Silent on FCC VRS Reform? StreetLeverage.com (Dec.21, 2011) for a discussion on the pressure for VRS providers “to seek interpreters who command a lower hourly rate.  Logically, these will be interpreters who have yet to obtain their national certification, have fewer years of experience, don’t have the skill-set to effectively do the work…” http://www.streetleverage.com/2011/12/will-sign-language-interpreters-remain-silent-on-fcc-vrs-reform/#sthash.caWykfxJ.dpuf

[4] The FCC does not mandate that VRS interpreters are certified. Although some VRS providers do intake assessments, the criteria and qualifications for competency are not public information.

[5] Mathers, C, “Deaf Interpreters in Court: An accommodation that is more than reasonable,” Publication of the National Consortium of Interpreter Education Centers, (2009), 20.

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25 Comments on "VRS Sign Language Interpreters: An Appropriate Legal Tool?"

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Member
Ellen C Hayes, Hayes Interpreting Services
The most difficult concept for hearing people to realize, regarding the use of technology and interpreting for the Deaf, is that it is not the answer in all situations. Be it legal or medical, it seems we continue to struggle to get those who have no knowledge of working with the Deaf to understand that technology should be a “tool” and only a tool. We have legal and medical training for a reason, because they are specialty fields. The court system and/or the medical providers need to know that to use a VRS interpreter without that special training does not… Read more »
tpotterveld
Member
Tara Potterveld
Thank you, Ellen, for your insights. We agree that a “tool” is only good when it is effective. Legal proceedings are of vital importance to Deaf people involved in the legal system. Take for example a dependency hearing where the state has taken custody of a Deaf person’s children. If the parents want the children back in the family, the parents may be involved with a series of legal hearings that could go on for a year or more. In the courtroom are a variety of agency officials as well as guardian ad litem for the children, social workers, attorneys… Read more »
Member
VRS services exist to provide functional equivalence to telephone communication. The real question to be asked in this scenario is “Would a hearing person in similar circumstances experience his or her court process via telephone, from a remote location?” And if the answer is “no”, then clearly VRS is an inappropriate choice for a Deaf person. This is a situation where the Deaf person and his or her lawyer(s) must advocate for appropriate communication. VRS interpreters can only receive and process calls, but cannot advocate for appropriate policy decisions in specific situations. I have worked in VRS for a number… Read more »
Member

I’m with Lee. Aside from the complex linguistic issues raised in the article, VRS is funded (both in the US and in Australia) as a phone service, not as an interpreting service per se. The hearing person/people and the Deaf person/people need to be communicating via phone (or equivalent). They can’t be in the same place. The only way (funding-wise) this would be allowable would be if the Deaf person was also appearing via video – which then makes the linguistic issues outlined in the article even more complex!!

tpotterveld
Member
Tara Potterveld
Dani, you are so right. In researching this article, Nikki and I talked to VRS interpreters who have dealt with legal calls. (All identifying information was omitted to maintain confidentiality guidelines.) In most cases, the Deaf person was either at home or in a social or case worker’s office when the call was placed. Often the hearing persons’ phone was on speaker mode and only the participants near the phone were heard by the interpreter. The interpreters were unable to hear other speakers in the room. The Deaf caller’s internet connections were often choppy leading to more confusion. I am… Read more »
tpotterveld
Member
Tara Potterveld
Thank you for your comments, Lee. Nikki and I agree that education is a key component to making changes to a system. You are correct that VRS interpreters are not advocates and that Deaf persons and their attorneys need to insist on appropriate access services under the ADA. In your first paragraph, you ask whether people who are not Deaf can access the courts through the phone system. In some cases they can, however, they are speaking for themselves, not depending on an interpreter who may or may not understand them. Is a phone call functionally equivalent if it is… Read more »
Member
As a SODA, I read this along with the enlightened replies and stopped to ask myself if I would be comfortable in ANY legal setting using a remote interpreter. What if my native language and the interpreter’s native language were not the same? While it’s obviously “better than nothing”, I absolutely would prefer to have an interpreter with me. For many in the Deaf community, Including the CDI interpretation would be ideal in medical and legal settings where clear communication is essential. The financial bottom line will always be a factor, but increasing awareness is key. We can hope to… Read more »
tpotterveld
Member
Tara Potterveld

Yes, Evelyn, thank you for stating the issues so elegantly. Awareness is essential and a positive first step. And using CDIs in legal assignments is vital when accuracy is needed.

Member
Dottie Griffith

Yesterday, I spoke with an attorney with sorenson VRS. I was glad because I did ask sorenson supervisor to transfer to legal interpreter.

Communication was such effectively accessible. They did a fabulous job !

tpotterveld
Member
Tara Potterveld

Hooray! That is wonderful news Dottie. Help us get the word out to all Deaf people that they can ask to be transferred to legally certified interpreters and CDIs. If the Deaf community decides to support VRS companies that have CDIs on staff, we can change the system. Thanks for your work, Tara and Nikki

Member
Alec McFarlane

The article, for me, represents the matter of all interpreting or translating services; Who is best able to provide these services for whom? The answer is presumed to be obvious.

Or am I being presumptuous in presuming that each and every language, including the nusiances of dialect, so deserves translation, attention, fairness, and equal justice under the law?

Whether you are deaf or not, and whether you come from France or America is rather immaterial to the common needs of the people. The matter is about enabling communications.

tpotterveld
Member
Tara Potterveld

We agree with you, Alec, enabling communication is so very important. We all need to work towards regulations and laws that codify this premise for Deaf people. Help us brainstorm ways to ensure Deaf people have accurate interpretations in legal matters. Thanks, Tara and Nikki

Member
Hello all~ I do not think VRS is appropriate for legal situations unless they fall within the normal use of telephones for legal matters such as to call and set up an appointment with your attorney, to call and request documents, or call for information from your local courthouse. Actual court proceedings should be handled by live interpreters. Access is compromised through video interpretation. Interpreters do not have access to the environmental and interactional cues and data, ability to interpret unexpected or solicited audience comments that are signed, ability to view and assist with tracking of documents simultaneously, ability to… Read more »
tpotterveld
Member
Tara Potterveld

Thank you, Shelly, for pointing out even more reasons why having the Deaf client and a full team of interpreters (SC:L and CDI) are necessary to be in the courthouse for procedures. And thanks for your diligent work on these important issues. Tara and Nikki

Member
Sarah Compton
Dear Tara and Nikki, Thank you for bringing these important issues to light. Perhaps you might find this article of interest: Compton, M. S. (2008). Fulfilling your professional responsibilities: Representing a Deaf Client in Texas. St. Mary’s Law Journal. The article addresses head-on the question of whether (and when) attorneys can and should use VRS to communicate with their deaf and hard of hearing clients in light of their professional responsibilities (not just their legal responsibility). The article continues to be cited by the American Law Reports, American Jurisprudence, and Texas Jurisprudence. A portion of the Table of Contents is… Read more »
tpotterveld
Member
Tara Potterveld

Sarah, this is a wonderful resource for attorneys, Deaf clients and interpreters. Thank you for sharing it. Do you know if it has made a difference in Texas VRS settings? With this information, do Texas VRS interpreters and Deaf clients feel more embolden to challenge the status quo? I presented a legal workshop at TSID and was very impressed with the commitment to justice and the skills of the Deaf and hearing interpreters I met there. Do you know if TSID has discussed the issues raised above and implemented any guidelines to VRS companies?
Thanks again for sharing.

Member

Thanks Sarah for posting that resource!!!

Member
Hello again~ One more important issue: When a VRS interpreter interprets for the police at a domestic event, utilizing the VRS interpreter to take a statement, that information becomes a part of the police report which is then used evidentially in court and is very difficult to refute later. It can have HUGE implications for individuals to have an unknown VRS interpreter (who cannot be subpoenaed or tracked to provide accountability for the interpretation if the person forgot to write down the CA’s #) mis-interpreting for a police report. If the VRS interpreters declined any interpreting that falls in the… Read more »
tpotterveld
Member
Tara Potterveld
We completely agree with you, Shelly and think any matters that involve law enforcement should not be handled through VRS without safeguards in place. Interpreting for police interactions, especially Miranda Warnings, without using teams of legally trained CDIs and SC:Ls can be detrimental to a Deaf suspect’s subsequent court case. Yet, at this point, there are no laws or regulations stating that officers may not conduct custodial interviews through VRS. However, VRS interpreters can be subpoenaed. It doesn’t happen often (or maybe we should say it doesn’t happen often enough), but after conducting limited research last summer, we did find… Read more »
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[…] Deaf Interpreters (CDIs) work as a team with legally certified hearing interpreters (SC:L).[1] Yet, the expense of providing sign language interpreters to Deaf persons in legal settings clashes […]

Member
Cayle O'Brien
VRS is a great tool for deaf individuals to have access to. This service provides the deaf client with the ability to have their language interpreted in many settings in a hurry when timing is of the essence. There are many other instances however, where having a certified interpreter in the room is important such as a medical or legal setting. Aside from all the jargon associated with these fields, there are special certifications for interpreters working in those fields for a reason. Body language and non-manual markers are a key component to American Sign Language and effective communication between… Read more »
tpotterveld
Member
Tara Potterveld
Thank you, Cayle, for your posting. Yes! I agree that having an interpreter live in the room is of benefit to everyone, especially when the stakes are high for the participants involved. People who are not Deaf do not like empty space on a phone call and often do not wait for the interpreted lag time before starting to speak again. This behavior denies the Deaf caller the opportunity to express opinions. If, however, all participants are in the same room, the hearing person can see that the Deaf person is signing, and thus, they are more likely to wait… Read more »
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[…] VRS Sign Language Interpreters: An Appropriate Legal Tool? […]

Member
Melinda Navins
As a CODA, I have accompanied my mother to many appointments, (medical, social worker, dentist, housing,etc) and encountered many situations where a specific sign language interpreter was not a match for my mother. Many times I had to interrupt or take over and interpret for my mother because, either my mother did not understand the interpreter or she did not understand the vocabulary being used and I knew the only way she would understand is if I interpreted for her. Granted, the courts provide interpreting services for the Deaf but, I do not think that the courts should decided what… Read more »
Member
Megan Foertsch
As a (hopefully) future upcoming Attorney for the Deaf, if VRS is used as a form of communication I will ask the Deaf individual if that form of communication is enough for them. If it is not, I will complain their form of communication is being limited for the same reasons listed in this article. I find it extremely difficult as a bistander as well as an Attorney disturbing if I was in the situation and lack of communication occurred. I believe legal matters are extremely important and should be communicated in the full effect but most importantly the right… Read more »

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