Jul 122010

The Future of VRS: How Can We Achieve Functional Equivalency?

By Cheryl Heppner, 7/9/10

Ed Bosson’s workshop on functional equivalency in video relay services (VRS) brought a good-sized crowd., Not only did he pull them in, but he kept things moving along briskly. He may be among that rare group of presenters who can truly defeat the threat of post-lunch food coma.

At the start of his program, Ed introduced himself. Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, he attended the state’s school for the deaf, graduated from Gallaudet University and eventually worked for the Public Utilities Commission in Texas as the state’s Relay Administrator.  Ed served three terms as chair of the National Association of State Relay Administrators (NASRA). Considered by many as the true “Father of VRS,” Ed was awarded an honorary doctorate from Gallaudet University.

Fighting for Access

Segueing from his personal history to that of telecommunications, Ed noted that telephone companies had denied accessibility to individuals who are deaf for over 100 years. Then came the age of the TTY. Ed recalled the day his neighbors came over to see his first TTY, a monstrous and heavy beast, and how the noise it produced had caused the neighbor’s children to start crying.

The 1990s were the age when relay services began, as we won the right to telecommunications access in Title IV of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  Ed was by then serving as state relay administrator, and he visited a number of communities to explain what relay services were all about.  He still remembers a visit to a school where he asked one young girl for the phone number of her parents.  Then he showed her how to make a relay call to her home.  The girl’s mother answered the phone but did not respond. After a pause, the Communications Assistant (CA) typed the background noise she was hearing — “mother crying”.

Defining Functional Equivalency

So what is the “functional equivalency” that the ADA requires of relay services and what does it mean? Ed explained that the government had defined it as the basic service that was available at the time: use of the TTY with text typing.  This decision has, over time, made us second class citizens. When Ed was interested in seeing video relay service (VRS) become available, he approached the Texas state public utilities commission about it.  He was told that VRS was a Cadillac and only a Chevrolet was needed.

Ed’s personal definition of what functional equivalency should mean is that there should be equal access to the senses such as hearing, seeing, and feeling.  When a hearing person makes a phone call to another hearing person, he or she hears inflections and emotions. A relay call should give that same experience.  Yet a relay call made by TTY doesn’t offer the “emoticons” that can be had on a computer, and there is no way for a CA to know the emotion behind the text being typed.  By contrast, VRS can provide an eye to see the voice inflections and emotions of the person on the other end of the call.  He sums up his core argument as “functional equivalency of the senses brings a true communication.”

With new innovation happening constantly, technology for people who can hear never stops advancing.  Ed pointed out that each time there is a new development in technology, we face an access barrier again. Last night’s big announcement by ZVRS was an exception. The iPhone4 with video will now allow its users to make VRS calls!

And what does Ed see in the future? He’d like to see communication by hologram.  He believes it will be a matter of time and that it will be an amazing breakthrough.  Webcams that used to be totally out of reach for the average consumer are now selling for $50 or less, but hologram technology is currently priced in the thousands. Unless our community speaks up, Ed said, we could face the Cadillac vs. Chevy argument again and again. To prevent this, all of us must be advocates and make an effort to share our needs and concerns with the government.

Watch for Part 2!

– Thanks to NVRC, Fairfax