With ‘Direct Video Calling’, FCC Helps Open Phone Lines to ASL Users

April 11, 2018 - (6 min read)

This is a guest post from Robert McConnell and David Schmidt of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has led the way in developing a solution that can help other governmental entities and businesses expand their customer service centers beyond simple voice-based communication — with a video technology known as “Direct Video Calling” (“DVC”).

DVC is a support service that enables customer service representatives who know American Sign Language (“ASL”) to communicate directly with people with hearing and speech disabilities who rely on ASL as their primary language, without the need for an intermediary to relay these conversations. With DVC, a person who is deaf and hard of hearing, has a speech disability or is deaf-blind can use ASL and a videophone with a real-time video connection to make a call directly to an ASL-trained agent within your call center, thus improving constituent communications, cutting down call times and eliminating miscommunications and errors.

For most people, getting municipal services is a simple phone call away. Whether it’s about finding out which day the recycling bins should be put out after a major holiday, reporting a dangerous pothole, or figuring out when your home’s property taxes are due — such services are often taken for granted.

However, for citizens who are deaf, hard of hearing, deaf-blind or speech disabled, the ability to make direct contact with a government office has not been easy — that is, until now. City offices can now leverage modern and readily available technology to enable customer representatives who know ASL to communicate directly with ASL users who call their centers, without the need for an intermediary.

Indirect Calling Technologies for People with Hearing and Speech Disabilities

How have government offices received telephone calls from people with hearing or speech disabilities until now? Over the past 30 years, municipal and state governments primary have used telecommunications relay services (TRS) for this purpose. TRS allows consumers with hearing and speech disabilities to make and receive calls with other individuals through third party operators called “communications assistants,” or “CAs.” In a text-based relay call, a person with a hearing loss calls a relay center, and types out his or her part of the conversation on a text-equipped device (e.g., a TTY or computer). The CA then speaks to the other party what the caller has typed, and types back that party’s responses to the caller.

Video relay service, or “VRS,” is a form of TRS that allows individuals who primarily depend on ASL to make a call using a video feed over a broadband service. These calls use CAs who know sign language to interpret the telephone conversation between the signing and non-signing parties. Although these communication methods can be effective, they each rely on an intermediary to achieve communication between the parties to a call, and so there is a greater risk for errors and delays.

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FCC Experience With Direct Video Calling

In June 2014, the FCC’s Disability Rights Office launched “Direct Video Calling” by creating an ASL Consumer Support Line to receive calls and inquiries from consumers using sign language. With this service, ASL users can now call our offices directly and get to communicate with an FCC representative who is also fluent in ASL, using the same video equipment these consumers already have for making TRS calls to voice users.

A major benefit of DVC is that it eliminates the need for a third person to relay these conversations, and thereby ensures a more accurate and effective way for the FCC to communicate directly with people with disabilities who know sign language.

We regularly receive calls from ASL users who express gratitude about their new ability to communicate directly; both they and our DVC customer service agents have found that with DVC, communication in both directions can flow far more quickly, efficiently and effectively than when parties are reliant on a relay service.

Callers who are deaf, hard of hearing, speech disabled or deaf-blind are now finally able to get answers to their questions quickly and comprehensively, and lodge complaints using their preferred language, ASL. In this way, DVC maximizes consumer satisfaction and improves the efficacy of customer support centers.

Our experience is a testament to DVC’s benefits. Since implementing DVC, the FCC has seen a three-fold increase in the number of calls from ASL-fluent callers, while incoming relay calls to our customer contact center have all but disappeared. The increase in call volume is quite telling, and consumers are now reaching out to us on critical matters that they may not have brought to our attention before we began offering DVC.

Moreover, since its introduction at the FCC, DVC has been deployed by a variety of other government agencies and private corporations, and the number of entities with customer support centers that have expressed an interest in this method of communicating continues to grow.

Benefits of Direct Video Calling

Because equal access is ensured when ASL users can communicate in their native language, DVC can provide a much-needed solution for governmental agencies to provide essential programs and services, such as:

  • Social and health services
  • Employment and rehabilitation programs
  • Educational institutions and training centers
  • Language interpretation and communication services
  • Hotlines and 311 informational services
  • Other services that can be handled via a voice telephone call

Another benefit to DVC is that it can increase employment opportunities for people with disabilities who are fluent in ASL, as these individuals can be hired to handle incoming ASL calls at call centers. And to the extent private contractors are hired to provide customer support services, they may be eligible for federal and state tax credits for hiring such personnel with disabilities.

Implementing Direct Video Calling

Implementing DVC technology is relatively inexpensive and easy. In order to make DVC available to the public through as many avenues as possible, the FCC funded the development of ACE Direct, a free, open source and omnichannel contact center platform that natively supports natural conversation through video, voice and text. Today, the market provides many commercially available options for DVC. The possible solutions range from simple videophone platforms provided by existing VRS providers, to complex call-routing systems.

With DVC, the FCC seeks to break down barriers that can help governmental entities and businesses make their contact centers more accessible by extending them beyond simple voice-based communications. We look forward to having you join us in meeting the needs of these individuals through equal and direct communication.

For more information, or to find out which DVC system will work best for your call center, please contact us or visit the FCC’s DVC and ACE Direct webpages.

0.jpgAbout the Authors: Robert McConnell is a Telecommunications Accessibility Specialist, Disability Rights Office, of the Federal Communications Bureau (FCC)’s Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau.



0-1.jpgDavid Schmidt is a Telecommunications Relay Services Fund Program Coordinator, Office of Managing Director, of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).