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Can Clarity Return Discretion to VRS Interpreters’ Repertoire?

Can Clarity Return Discretion to VRS?

The FCC’s “10-minute rule” and their stance on information gathering to contextualize calls in VRS have been widely misunderstood. Understanding the intent of these regulations can help return discretion to VRS interpreters.

 

A great American journalist, Margaret Fuller, once said, “If you have knowledge, let others light their candles in it.” Sign language interpreters often work in isolation and have limited opportunities to interact and, therefore, limited opportunities to share knowledge. Fortunately, with technological advancements, we have platforms such as Street Leverage to disperse information throughout the community.

[Click to view post in ASL]

My inspiration to write this comes from my discovery of information when I was preparing for a lesson on the Video Relay Service industry for my interpreting students. In addition to being a video relay interpreter for the past six years, I am also a lecturer at one of the largest interpreter training programs in the country at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf. As a colleague of mine, Brian Morrison, once said, “It takes a village to raise a sign language interpreter,” so I take my job as a lecturer very seriously and work hard to ensure the information I share in my classroom is accurate. Due to the size of our program, I realize the impact I have as an educator on both the Deaf and interpreting communities.  

Revisiting FCC Regulations

While searching through some of the FCC regulations to prepare for my lecture, I came across the FCC’s 2006 revision to the “10-minute rule”. It had been my understanding that unless a switch was requested by the caller (either hearing or Deaf), an interpreter or Communication Assistant (CA), must remain in the call for at least 10 minutes before transferring the call to another interpreter. My understanding was incorrect. On June 16, 2006, the FCC released an order on two VRS issues: the FCC’s 10-minute rule and the interpreter’s role regarding asking questions to callers.

Understanding the “10-Minute Rule”

The first issue deals with the FCC’s 10-minute rule, which requires CAs to remain with a TRS user for at least 10 minutes before transferring the call to another CA. In the 2006 order, the FCC clarifies that in the event a video interpreter handling a VRS call in sign language finds that effective communication is not taking place, the interpreter may change to another interpreter before the initial 10 minutes have passed. The FCC explained that

“there may be VRS calls during which the party using sign language, the CA, or both, find that they are unable to communicate effectively because of regional dialect differences, lack of knowledge about a particular subject matter (e.g., a technical or complex subject matter), or other reason. In these circumstances, when effective communication is not occurring, we conclude that the 10-minute in-call replacement rule is not violated if the VRS provider has another CA take over the call.”

This discovery was new information to me. After reading Richard Peterson’s article “Profession in pentimento”, I had been under the impression that one of our most important values as sign language interpreters, our use of discretion, is in direct conflict with the FCC regulations found in Title 47 of the Code of Federal Regulations. The regulation found on page 266 of the Mandatory Minimum Standards states:“Consistent with the obligations of telecommunications carrier operators, CAs are prohibited from refusing single or sequential calls…”

Can VRS Interpreters Exercise Discretion?

According to Peterson, this rule is widely interpreted to mean that interpreters working as communication assistants must – without exception – accept any and all calls; in other words, they cannot exercise discretion, stating,

“From the frame of reference of the FCC, everything professional interpreters believe about the bedrock value of exercising discretion in our work is misprised, rendered inoperative.”

On their Video Relay Consumer Facts page 7, the FCC states it a little differently:

“Preferential treatment of calls is prohibited. VRS … providers must handle calls in the order in which they are received. They cannot selectively answer calls from certain consumers or certain locations.”

Here the caveat from RID on the applicability of our Code seems almost prescient: 

“Federal, state or other statutes or regulations may supersede this Code of Professional Conduct. When there is a conflict between this code and local, state, or federal laws and regulations, the interpreter obeys the rule of law.” (RID/NAD Code of Professional Conduct 2005: 2)

If you look back to the revision of the FCC’s regulation made in 2006, you can see that Peterson’s argument is not necessarily true if the interpreter is aware of the revision and their ability to use discretion.

Lack of Understanding or Lack of Information?

I decided to see whether this 2006 revision was widely known to video relay interpreters by talking to several interpreters representing various VRS companies across the country. I found that we all had the same misunderstanding. We were all under the impression that the FCC’s 10-minute rule prohibits interpreters from using their discretion. So, in essence, Peterson’s argument has some validity if we are not even aware that we CAN, in fact, exercise our right to discretion and still follow the FCC regulation. As you can see, it is not the FCC’s regulation that is holding us back from adhering to that bedrock value of exercising discretion, but it is our lack of full understanding of our options as professional and ethical interpreters.

As I stated, knowledge truly is powerful. A recent case study on VRS interpreters’ decision making revealed that one common theme interpreters cited was the focus on rules (Holcombe, 2014). One interpreter reported that she was thwarted in her intention to provide effective service in part due to her understanding of a federal regulation. When responding to a request to team, she was unable to immediately replace a struggling interpreter because of the “10-minute rule,” which she believed mandated that an interpreter must remain in a call for a minimum of ten minutes. Her decision making was an example of deontological thinking with a focus on rules (Holcombe, 2014).

Stress and Sign Language Interpreters

Another theme that came up during the case study was the incidence of stress. In Holcombe’s findings the same interpreter stated she experienced stress due to the constraints of the “10-minute rule”. The data and literature review from the study shows that the FCC’s orders are not clearly understood by VRS interpreters, which can be an additional cause of stress. This added stress is a huge concern given that in a self-report study, the VRS industry had been found to be one of the top settings of occupational risk for interpreters (Dean; Pollard; & Samar, 2010). More recently the issue of occupational stress and resulting injury in the VRS setting has been addressed in a survey conducted by the by the Video Interpreter Member Section (VIMS) of the RID (Kroeger, J., 2014).

Hetherington (2011) performed a phenomenological analysis to study occupational stress in the signed language interpreting profession. Analysis of the research identified three themes related to significant causes of interpreter’s stress—real and/or perceived constraints on their role by other professionals, their own understanding of the responsibilities coupled with complexities of the role, and the feeling of powerlessness when the goal to ensure effective communication is hindered by the constraints (Hetherington, 2011).

Industry Standards and FCC Regulations Can Align

RID and industry standards suggest that it is best practice for interpreters to obtain information in advance in order to be most successful (RID Standard Practice Paper, 2007). In its second ruling, the FCC clarified that a VRS interpreter may ask a VRS caller questions during call set-up when this is needed to ensure that the interpreter can effectively handle the call. The FCC explained that “in some circumstances the complexity of sign language may make it difficult for the CA to effectively relay the call if the CA does not understand the subject matter or context of the call.” In addition, the Commission noted that “it is universal practice in the interpreting profession to ask customers questions prior to an assignment in order to better facilitate effective communication. As the Commission has noted, one sign can have different meanings depending on the context.” However, according to the RID standard practice paper about VRS, gathering information from callers prior to phone calls being placed is not a common policy among VRS providers (RID SPP, 2007).        

Knowledge Sharing and Reflective Practice

Now you may ask yourself, who is responsible for ensuring that the interpreters possess this knowledge? Is it up to the individual interpreters or is it up to the companies to ensure that the interpreters are given this information? How can interpreters share their candlelight of knowledge if they are not even certain about the origin of the rules and guidelines that govern the VRS industry (Alley, 2013)? Also, how can we expect interpreters to share their knowledge with others if they lack understanding of the delineation of authority between FCC regulations and corporate practices and policies (Alley, 2013)?

One solution I propose to reduce misunderstandings and ensure information sharing is the opportunity for interpreters to talk with one another and engage in a form reflective practice with colleagues. Reflective practice has been a common theme that has been discussed in previous Street Leverage articles.  We are fortunate to have such notable supporters of this effort who share their positive experience of engaging in reflective practices. Please see Anna-Witter Merrithew’s article, Sign Language Interpreters: Breaking Down Silos Through Reflective Practice,  Kendra Keller’s Case Discussion: Sign Language Interpreters Contain Their Inner “What the…!!!?” , Robyn Dean’s article Ethical Development: A Sign of the Times for Sign Language Interpreters and Kate Block’s piece,  Horizontal Violence: Can Sign Language Interpreters Break the Cycle? for more in-depth explanations of what reflective practice is and the benefits it has to the interpreting community. I have been both a participant and facilitator of reflective practice groups known as “supervision groups”. The experiences I have had as a reflective practitioner have enhanced my critical thinking skills as an interpreter. If you have not participated in one of these groups,  I highly recommend you do.  For information on future groups and what reflective practice is, please visit this site

Questions to Consider

  1. What do you do to help ensure the light of knowledge gets passed on throughout the interpreting community?
  2. Who is ultimately responsible for ensuring the FCC rules and company policies are understood?  Is it the interpreters, the VRS companies, or both?
  3. How do consumer expectations impact FCC regulations, company policies and interpreter behavior?

Related Articles

Station Meditation: VRS, Compassion and Sign Language Interpreters by Judith Webb

VRS Sign Language Interpreters: An Appropriate Legal Tool? by Tara Potterveld and Nichola Schmitz

 

References

Alley, E. (2013). Video Relay Service: The path from student to professional? International Journal of Interpreter Education, 5(2), 96-110.

Dean, R. K., Pollard, R. Q., & Samar, V. J. (2010). RID Reseach Grant Underscores Occupational Health Risks: VRS and K-12 Settings Most Concerning. VIEWS, 41-43.

Federal Communications Commission. In the Matter of Telecommunications Relay Services and Speech-to-Speech Services for Individuals with Hearing and Speech Disabilities, Order, CG Docket No.03-123, FCC 06-81,released June 16, 2006.                    

Hetherington, A. (2011). A magical profession? Causes and management of occupational stress in the signed language interpreting profession. In L. Leeson, S. Wurm, & M. Vermeerbergen (Eds.), The sign language translator and interpreter: Preparation, practice and performance. Manchester, UK: St Jerome.

Holcombe, Kathleen C., “Video Relay Service Interpreting: Interpreters’ Authority,

Agency, and Autonomy in the Process of Ethical Decision Making” (2014). Master’s of Arts in Interpreting Studies (MAIS) Theses. Paper 16. http://digitalcommons.wou.edu/theses/16

Kroeger, J. (2014). Findings from the video interpreter member section survey on injuries. VIEWS, 31(1), 42-43.

Peterson, R. (2011). Profession in pentimento: A narrative inquiry into interpreting in video settings. In L. Swabey, & B. Nicodemus (Eds.), Advances in interpreting research (pp. 199-223). Amsterdam, Netherlands: John Benjamins.

Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf. (2005). NAD-RID Code of Professional Conduct. From Registry of the Interpreters for Deaf (RID). http:///www.rid.org/UserFiles/pdfs/codeofethics.pdfSPP.pdf

Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf. (2007). Standard practice paper Video Relay Service interpreting. From Registry of the Interpreters for the Deaf: http://www.rid.org?UserFiles?file?pdfs?Standard_Practice_Papers/Drafs_June/20 06/VRS-

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Station Meditation: VRS, Compassion and Sign Language Interpreters

Station Meditation: VRS, Compassion and Sign Language Interpreters

Through recognizing the humanity in ourselves and Deaf people, and working towards a goal, our work can become much less stressful.

I think as Video Relay Service interpreters we have done ourselves a disservice in the way we talk about ourselves, our callers and our work. Generally, when we describe working in a call center, we either underplay it (“I’m ‘just’ interpreting phone calls”), or grossly exaggerate (“We interpret sex calls! We interpret for drug deals!”). The truth of the matters lies somewhere in between and is infinitely more interesting and gratifying.

[Click to view post in ASL]

The Mechanics of VRS

First, a better visual description of the mechanics of VRS work. Imagine an old-fashioned Bingo blower machine. The balls are whirling around in the chamber, and then one is randomly pulled into the chute for the number to be called. This is each inbound call that is received. The only slight difference is that each time, the ball (caller) is returned to the chamber once it has been called (call completed). Over time, the same number will come up again. This means that while VRS calls appear randomly for the interpreters, we will sometimes see the same number (caller) again. Sometimes, in a single day we will see all distinct callers. A different person every single time. However, it does happen that over the course of a day, a week, a month, callers will be seen over and over again.

The Intimate Nature of VRS

A relationship (such as it is) is established with these callers, whom we may never meet in person. Having worked as a sign language interpreter in VRS for many years, I have been able to witness people’s lives in fits and starts. I am aware of people getting married, having children, seeing the children grow up, parents dying and all other aspects of life. It is a privilege I do not take lightly.

We are also physically seeing into people’s homes, places of work, and other spaces they occupy over time. This is very intimate knowledge we gain and is not often what a freelance/community interpreter would experience. Often, assignments out in the community have a more constructed environment. In those instances, Deaf people are seen in their doctor’s office, in their classroom, in their job site. Our callers are putting a lot of faith in us as interpreters, not only interpret their communication, but to also hold sacred all that we are privy to during the course of each phone call.

Business Owners and VRS

In addition to the intimate types of calls VRS interpreters experience, we interpret daily for Deaf callers who are doing their business, making their living, over the phone. As we see these callers repeatedly, we get into a rhythm of what those calls will be like. We learn the lingo/jargon of their various occupations, we get used to their way of interacting with their customers, and their idiosyncrasies. As this working relationship is established, we are able to make agreements about sign choices, ways of interacting with their customers, etc. Over time, it becomes easier and more comfortable to settle into the task at hand. I am sure this goes both ways. Hopefully the callers become comfortable with the interpreters over time. We become “colleagues” in a way. We want their businesses to succeed, and we do our best to make that happen!

Highlighting Human Interaction

All of this is a reminder to see each other as humans in an interaction. Of course there are rules and regulations for VRS, which we must follow, but I have found if we prioritize being human, all of that falls into place anyway. In some ways, the structure of the VRS system has pushed sign language interpreters back into the “machine model” of interpreting. It seems that we have allowed ourselves to backslide to this mindset. This is unfortunate, as it further separates us from our Deaf callers. This is where I believe some of the struggles and negative attitudes come into play with VRS work. The fact that we are doing this work through the internet, and are not in the same physical space as our Deaf customers, should not mean that there are additional barriers to our communication. I feel it’s important for video interpreters to actively seek that human connection. As Brandon Arthur stated in his StreetLeverage – Live 2015 recap, “a fundamental truth about the field of sign language interpreting…success is derived from first acknowledging the humanity of the people in front of you. Simple. Challenging. True.”

I believe that if we really see ourselves as humans first, and our Deaf callers as humans before anything else, our work will actually become almost effortless. This can be accomplished in a number of ways.

  1. Connecting with our callers as humans is done when we are not actively involved with interpreting the conversation. A warm smile, admiring a scarf, waving at cute babies, cooing over kittens. The more familiar and comfortable we are with callers over time, the more we can settle in and do the work with ease, and all involved can be satisfied by a job well done. Even if we are faced with a caller we have never seen before, if we could assume this attitude, that callers are human as we are, therefore comfortable and familiar, all our calls can be smoother.

  1. Using care when discussing the work with others is also critical in maintaining a focus on the humanity of those we work with. When I talk about my work to non-interpreters, I make sure to talk about working with humans, and the fact that working with humans is demanding.  Think of nursing, teaching, and other jobs where you are constantly interacting with people in all their joy and pain. When we as interpreters talk with each other, while protocol indicates that we refer to “callers”, I think this limits us as well. We need to recognize the humanity we encounter daily.

  1. Recognizing the shared experiences we have with callers also helps keep our focus on the human factor. When explaining VRS to others, I also try to explain that every type of phone call that a hearing person makes, a Deaf person also makes. Did you call your mother today? Was your conversation pleasant? Did it make you feel like a little kid again? Did you get mad and hang up? What about calls to set up doctor appointments or get test results? Telling the school your child will be out sick? Hanging out on the phone shooting the breeze with an old friend? Hours arguing with Comcast? This is what we do everyday!

In The End, Rise to the Challenge

Sure, we can talk about the stats and productivity rates of VRS work. We can talk about the anxiety that comes with not knowing what’s coming our way next. We can talk about compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma. I will admit there have been times when I have interpreted very difficult, painful conversations after which I have removed my headset and walked out of the call center. I knew I would be no good for any subsequent callers, therefore I took care of myself, and them. However, I know I have settled into all of that. I enjoy the thrill of the unknown. I feel I can rise to the challenge of whatever comes my way. Interpreting in VRS becomes easier the more I can approach my work with curiosity, compassion and a spirit of collaboration with my fellow humans.

Questions to Consider:

  1. What is a key phrase you can use to internally remind yourself that we are all human?
  2. By treating each other humanely, in what ways can your work product be improved?
  3. Suppose you’re not “feeling it”; what are some things you can do physically to make it seem like you are, or steer yourself towards a more positive outlook?

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VRS Sign Language Interpreters: An Appropriate Legal Tool?

VRS Sign Language Interpreters - An Appropriate Legal Tool

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.