Sign Language Interpreters: The Unintended Victims of VRS Regulation Change

Distraught Sign Language InterpreterAbout 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?

Karen K. Graham

Karen K. Graham

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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About the Author

Karen Graham, Management Consultant and Psychotherapist, has worked in the fields of sign language interpreting, social work and leadership with Deaf and hard of hearing people for over 30 years. She is one of the founders and was the CEO of SignOn: A Sign Language Interpreter Services in Seattle. She also started and ran a psychiatric rehabilitation program for Deaf people in Chicago. She is published and has presented in the areas of interpreting, mental health, hearing loss, substance abuse and human service program development. She has a BS from Northwestern University in the field of Communicative Disorders and an MSW from the University of Chicago in Social Service Administration. Karen is a former Certified Sign Language Interpreter and is currently a Licensed Clinical Social Worker.

15 Enlightened Replies

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  1. 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 way to compete in the the VRI industry. Million dollar call centers are being created/funded for VRS and they are being dual tasked (along with interpreters)for VRI.

    This is not a cause I can afford the time, energy or money to fight but hopefully the right person in the federal government will look at this and consider finishing the regulation job. Companies that take federal government dollars to provide VRS services should not be allowed to also offer VRI services. The technology and the ASL interpreters can easily “switch hats” between VRS and VRI. Of course this means the Federal Government is subsidizing the VRI business unit of VRS companies.

    • Karen says:

      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.

  2. Ellen C Hayes says:

    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 with statutes, big business taking over where they have no knowledge and the interpreters become something they don’t want to be. We all know that our first love is the service we provide….I cannot say that about some of the businesses that are spreading across the nation providing VRI with no experience of ever being out in the sign language interpreting world. It is all about money and certainly not the interpreter. Maybe I sound negative, but while VRI services are something that could be useful in many, but not all settings, there will be those that use it as “the end all to end all” of services whether it works or not. We are then back to your question….”What happens to the sign language interpreter….”. Thank you for taking the time to write the article.

    • Karen says:

      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.

  3. Daryl Crouse says:

    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 heart I read about the final demise of a company myself and others poured our hearts into at the beginning. Though none of us were involved in the final sinking of the ship, it still hits the heart and soul just as much.

    I wrote two articles that I think compliment your perspective.

    If it helps, I finally had to view the entire situation as an anchor that had to be let go of so that the sails of the future could get their wind.

    • Karen says:

      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.

  4. Laura says:

    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.
    Thank you for this article, I had wondered what had gone on behind the scenes after all the rulings.

  5. 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 with a regular job, retirement and health benefits etc… I would likely find another more stable career field with benefits etc…I see this field as freelance social services field. Thanks again for posting!!!

    • Karen says:

      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!

  6. Gina Gonzalez says:

    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 to date which I believe was previously siphoned by (to quote Ed Bosson) “nefarious and greedy” folks working within the VRS industry. Oversight is much more manageable with only 6-7 VRS eligible providers currently in the market. I agree with Ed B. that whatever dismal state the VRS industry is currently in it is mostly due to the actions of those who didn’t follow the rules, and not necessarily the rules or actions of the rule makers. But then again, the quality of the impact the changes have had on the industry depends on the perspective of the observer of the data. It is all relative…

    The quality of services specifically, effective communication was and has been on a downward spiral for years. Motivated by bigger profits, many providers not only made cuts to interpreter pay rates and incentives, but they also began hiring inexperienced interpreters over experienced ones. One of the largest providers went as far as to set caps on the number of hours a more experienced and/or certified interpreter could work compared to their less experienced, and (in many cases) uncertified counter parts. Granted, many of the most qualified interpreters chose to leave the VRS industry soon after they decided “VRS isn’t for me”.

    With respect to technology (products), it has somewhat improved because instead of relying on creative call schemes that drained the TRS fund of its vitality, providers are now having to compete at the service/product level. They can no longer fall back on non-compliant schemes to keep their businesses afloat and/or to line their pockets with TRS monies.

    However, the downfall of providers shifting their focus from call schemes to quality in service delivery is that the interpreter is being burden in some ways to do much more than it is humanly sound. Keep in mind that historically the interpreter has always been the “go-to” resource when it came to under-performance in technology. For instance, manually recording the start of set up time, start of a call time, end of a call time, and end of set up time because it wasn’t automated.

    After 13 years, the issue of the interpreter having to shoulder the burden of inferior VRS technology has not been completely eradicated. In some cases, the psychological implications of having to shoulder such weight is worse today than 13 years ago because back then we sympathized with the fact that the service was in its infancy, but today the interpreter is not as sympathetic, especially not the VRS savvy ones (likely most qualified as well), and therefore the incongruence between attitude (our feelings)and behavior (what we are made to do) accelerates the burn out rate. Another qualified interpreter bites the VRS dust….

    Because VRS technology is still not at a fully automated level, the interpreter continues to be used to compensate for the industry’s technological shortcomings, and despite that fact, providers still market their technology as superior.

    For instance, in order to attract and retain “new” users, providers offer features such as one-way or two-way texting between user and interpreter for the purpose of sending and/or receiving information.

    The point I am making here is not whether it is a change in service delivery that VRS users consider to be better, and whether or not the new regulations had anything to do with it, but that the interpreter still has to do more to deliver customer satisfaction. The more in this case is to go from one mode of communication (interpreting ASL/spoken) to another (texting) in a given moment. Also, shifting from a conservative role (highly transparent/dial tone) to a liberal role (highly involved/helper model) in negotiating with the hearing party what the information (address, phone number etc) is in order to send accurate text information to the Deaf VRS user.

    Another example is sending sign mail/missed VRS call notifications to users via email/text as an added feature that sets a provider apart from the rest. The interpreter has to do this manually and within the allotted time before the call disconnects. Furthermore, they have to do it while delivering the sign mail message in ASL. It is not just a race against time, but adept negotiations between skillsets.
    Finally, there is VRI; with the new changes in regulations came new ideas to making $$$, and incorporating VRI within the VRS platform is the latest scheme to offset the loss of windfall profits due to stiffer regulations.

    The video interpreter in this case is tasked with handling both VRS and VRI calls. They are two very distinct approaches, and to effectively go from one approach to another is quite a feat.

    To sum it up, the FCC accomplished its one main goal: stop the fraud and abuse. The rest is to be determined with the next round of changes related to the structure and practice of VRS.

    The vast majority of interpreters working in VRS have no idea what exactly has taken place or will take place. We are victims indeed; victims to our insular way of being despite the fact that we operate within an interconnected industry where even the slightest change in any of the components within the system can create a domino effect of catastrophic proportions.

  7. Ryan says:

    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 on-site needs.
    “Is VRS a better product for Deaf consumers now that it can be more tightly monitored?”
    JV- The FCC has not sought to foster “a better product”. They wanted to attempt to save money and were pressured by the major players in adopting a model that would result in fewer entities to monitor. I certainly do not get the interpreting quality that was available prior to the fall of 2011 after the change.
    “Is there less opportunity for fraud and more control over the quality of services under the new regulations?”
    JV-The FBI continues to investigate providers and we will have to see whether the DOJ will prosecute. The commission of fraud is more a matter of determination and motivation than the imposition of regulations and restrictions. If there’s a will, there’s a way. How the prominent provider has avoided scrutiny and prosecution unfortunate. That company and others have been able to grease the skids of the FCC and successfully lobby to their advantage. Note how some who had defrauded the TRS Fund were able to negotiate a payback settlement of cents on the dollar. And then their certification was renewed. This is a piss poor way of handling our tax dollars. Providers would assert that VRS is not funded by tax dollars but rather by fees. Hardly! The Fund takes levies taxes against all telecommuncation providers and the cost shows up on customer’s bills. Neither has an option of not paying. It is a Tax!
    Sadly, consumers are not better off. VRS services generally are provided by a body of less qualified interpreters. Gina nailed that one.
    However she notes that, “companies could no longer fall back on non-compliant schemes to keep their businesses afloat…” I couldn’t disagree more. VRS was and continues to be a license for printing money. The margins were and are sufficient to provide an excellent product/service and still generate sufficient profit for stake holders. The company I used to work for was relatively small, but was able to thrive without the benefit of scheming or resorting to a fraudulent business model. Sadly, in an effort to eliminate the cheaters, a number of good providers were forced out of the industry by FCC regulators. What happened was not unlike throwing the baby out with the bath water.
    Neither can I agree with her (Gina) “that the interpreter still has to do more to deliver customer satisfaction.” Rather, interpreters still need to do what they have always had to do. I view the newer services or features offered by technology as tools in helping interpreters do what they do…even better. They interpret the content and spirit of the message accurately. I thank God for those who are gifted and do the job well. I curse the wanna bee interpreters who are not up to the task and the companies that employ them. It is a hard job. One that requires an element of gift and talent that must be supplemented with ongoing education and personal drive toward improvement. For those of you who do your job well, thank you is not enough and certainly the VRS companies are not going to recognize you for your efforts and abilities as they should by paying you more. Again, thank you.

  8. Donna Lyons says:

    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 in nicely and continue to do VRS work. I still miss the people that I worked with when I was working from home. I don’t know where most of them went. I know that people worried about the ethics of working from home. I can tell you that we were very carefully monitored and maintained the same confidentiality that exists in an office environment. The fraud that occurred during that time was not done by any with whom I worked.

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