Will Sign Language Interpreters Remain Silent on FCC VRS Reform?

Censored Sign Language Interpreter Working in Video Relay

In some circles, VRS providers are viewed as the newest of the Coyotes on the scene of the sign language interpreting industry.  Whether you subscribe to that view or not, what the FCC is ‘seeking public comment’ on (i.e. prepared to do unless there is significant feedback in opposition) will have an impact on you as an interpreter—regardless if your position is “I don’t do VRS.”  In the Further Notice of Proposed Rule Making relative to the Structure and Practices of the VRS Program released on Thursday, December 15, 2011, the FCC outlines a dramatic change to the structure of the Video Relay Service.

What is Being Proposed?

Generally, the FCC is seriously exploring the concept of moving VRS providers from the current tiered model of compensation (paid on a per minute basis) to a “per user” model (paid a monthly fee per active user) and having qualified providers bid for one of a small number of contracts to deliver the service.

The reason this is significant to the sign language interpreting industry is because of the 12 eligible VRS providers only one is currently of size and/or operationally efficient enough to operate within the “per user” model.  Therefore, only one is currently qualified to bid for a contract.  Consequently, the FCC acknowledges the necessity of a phased transition plan to give providers an opportunity to restructure to operate within the new model and to obtain sufficient size to qualify to bid.

What Can Sign Language Interpreters Expect?

These structural adjustments to the industry will necessitate a reorganization of the majority—if not all—of the VRS providers delivering services today.  The basis of these reorganizations will be deep cost cutting.  This will be done in order to enable providers to deliver services at a deeply reduced rate and position them to redirect monies into expansion activities.

Falling Compensation

The largest cost when providing VRS is the cost of interpreter compensation.  The FCC knows it.  VRS providers know it.  Sign language interpreters know it.  Consequently, providers will be seeking to accommodate the new model by implementing more aggressive performance metrics (FCC is considering reducing provider required ASA as part of the restructuring), reducing opportunity for higher paid interpreters (most qualified), and/or compensation adjustments.

Further, a reduction to the number of VRS providers will result in a lack of competitiveness on points of interpreter compensation and benefits, which means the continued declination of hourly rates offered to newly hired interpreters.  Worse, it will likely mean an even larger percentage of working sign language interpreters struggling to find work at a livable wage.

Under Valued Credentials

As a result of the immense pressure to fit within the new model, providers will 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, or worse will be qualified, certified professionals simply looking to survive.  All of which will mean that the investments made by sign language interpreters to seek out and/or maintain their certification will be less valuable than it is today.

How to Brace for Impact?

The most important thing is to acknowledge that further change is coming.  In the face of this inevitability, it is necessary for interpreters to mobilize and provide comment to the FCC directly.  Further, sign language interpreters must  insist that those who are paid and elected to represent them do so immediately.

What should we be lobbying for?

There are a few fundamental things that will help contain the erosion of our position as sign language interpreters within the new model.  They are as follows:

Rate Differential for Use of Certified Interpreters

The rate providers are compensated per active user should be subject to a differential for use of nationally certified interpreters.  This differential should be calculated according to the percentage of nationally certified interpreters employed by a provider.   A differential would ensure the continued interest of providers in employing certified interpreters and protect the spirit of functional equivalency for the end user.  Further, it offers a point of competition among providers relative to a “new-to-VRS” user’s election of a default provider.

An example,

           Provider A:

                                Active Users:                            10

                                Monthly Rate Per User:            $175.00

                                Certification Differential:            $5.00                    (potential per user)

                                % of Interpreters Certified:         80%

                                Differential Compensation:        $40.00                  (8 x $5)

                                Monthly Total Compensation:   $1790.00              ($175 x 10 + $40)

Establishing a certification differential aligns the interests of the Deaf community, sign language interpreter, VRS providers and the FCC.  Importantly, it reinforces within the VRS arena that to be nationally certified is a professional commitment and an accomplishment.

Reporting Transparency

There is value in insisting that providers include a line item in their reports that specifically indicates the direct cost, and only the direct costs, associated with the compensation of interpreters.  This would more clearly validate the cost of employing interpreters across the VRS arena.  Further, it provides clarity at the FCC regarding the costs, the largest of all the costs, associated with the provision of the service.  At a minimum, it would mean the cost of interpreters will be clearly considered as the commission works to reduce the overall cost of the TRS Fund.

Qualification Process for Interpreters

As comment is being sought on a qualification process for “new to VRS” users, the FCC should be urged to implement a qualification process for “new to VRS” sign language interpreters.  This should take on the form of a set of requirements providers are to comply with prior to having an interpreter sit in a station.

Requirements should include:

                -Minimum of 3 years of professional experience

                -Credential validation

                -40 hour mandatory training on the provision of VRS

                          Topics might include:

                               -History of VRS

                               -Effective provision of the service

                               -Regulatory compliance

                               -Cultural sensitivities

                               -Whistleblower policies

Further, and to address the continued qualification of interpreters working in a VRS setting, providers should be required to provide an annual refresher training on the topics above and confirm a credential check.

The implementation of a qualification process by the FCC would prevent the pilfering of students from ITP/IPP programs, ensure interpreters working in the VRS arena have some professional foundation for their work, and necessitate that some level of training is provided to working interpreters annually.  Again, this works in the interest of all VRS stakeholders.

Repeal the Ban on Working from Home

In an effort to create an additional option for providers to reduce costs (i.e. not solely targeting interpreter compensation), the FCC needs to overturn the decision to ban providers from delivering VRS from an at home solution.  This gives providers an opportunity to reduce infrastructure costs (i.e. the cost of leases, networks, etc.), which supports their ability to work within the new model.  Further, it offers sign language interpreters the opportunity to reduce the costs (i.e. gas, parking, and time) associated with reporting to a center.  Equally important, it supports the end user by increasing the supply of available interpreters.  Again, this is a win for all VRS stakeholders.

How to Work with Sign Language Interpreters

The FCC is also seeking comment on the concept of their supplementing provider’s outreach activities by campaigning to educate the public on VRS.  These activities would be paid for by the TRS fund.  If the FCC is to use TRS funds, it is important that this campaign include how to work with sign language interpreters.  This will serve to improve the efficiencies of the service (i.e. reduce the costs to the fund) and at the same time provide a better experience for both the end user and the sign language interpreter.

Will History Repeat Itself?

While it is uncomfortable to be faced with continued change on the VRS side of the sign language interpreting industry, it is important that this discomfort not paralyze.  Make no mistake, whether you choose to file a comment with the FCC or not, the changes afoot will impact your local sign language interpreter economy.  The Community side of the industry is quickly becoming a refuge to interpreters seeking greater stability.  This continued migration of interpreters from VRS to Community will serve to establish a new paradigm in most communities—interpreter supply exceeding demand.

The FCC is accepting public comment for the next 45 days (approximately).  Let’s not be found past feeling nor reinforce history by allowing these types of fundamental changes to our industry go on without the voice of the sign language interpreter being heard.

Join the mobilization by filing comment directly with the FCC by clicking here.  Simply add your name, address, and upload your letter.

Note, comments should be address to:

Ms. Marlene H. Dortch
Secretary
Federal Communications Commission
445 12th Street, SW
Washington, DC 20554

As you consider filing comment with the FCC, please review these suggestions.

If you are interested in reading the other comments filed (I found some of them fascinating) on the VRS structural reform, you can find them by clicking here.

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