Serving Hard-of-Hearing and Deaf Customers

English: A Deaf, Hard-Of-Hearing or Speech-Imp...

English: A Deaf, Hard-Of-Hearing or Speech-Impaired person at his workplace, communicating with a hearing person via a Video Relay Service video interpreter (a V.I., a Sign Language interpreter, shown on-screen), using a videophone. The hearing person with whom the video interpreter is also communicating can not be seen. The videophone camera rests above his computer monitor. Note as well the additional videophones on his desk. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The 21st Century Communications Video Accessibility Act of 2010 expanded the obligations of carriers to increase the access of persons with disabilities to modern communications. The CVAA makes sure that accessibility laws enacted in the 1980s and 1990s are brought up to date with 21st century technologies, including new digital, broadband, and mobile innovations. This expanded requirement to provide voice communications to include VoIP, text messaging, e-mail, instant messaging, and video communications.

This law covers a number of different types of disabilities, but today I will just discuss what this law means for a carrier when dealing with hard-of-hearing or deaf customers. In order to understand your obligations you must first understand how hard-of-hearing and deaf people communicate with others.

Today, the preference for communicating between two hard-of-hearing or deaf people, or with somebody who knows American Sign Language (ASL) is to use Skype, Apple Facetime, or one of the many other web-based services that allow the called parties to see each other. But when hard-of-hearing or deaf customers want to communicate with anybody else they have to use one of the more traditional methods.

There are two basic systems in place for placing calls between hearing and non-hearing people.  Telephone Relay Services (TRS) was a system started in the 80’s that created a call center of live operators who act as intermediaries for calls between a deaf caller and any other person. In this system the deaf caller uses a device known as a TDD that allows them to type to the operator, who then reads what is typed to the called party. In the other direction the operator types whatever the non-deaf party says and sends it to the TDD device.

Since 2000 the states have all created Video Relay Services (VRS) where the hard-of-hearing or deaf caller uses a video phone or camera system so that they can be seen by the operator. This allows the deaf caller and the operator to both us sign language to communicate, which greatly speeds up the process.

Video Relay Service has mostly supplanted Telephone Relay Service. For example, in Virginia (and each state runs their own centers) VRS centers carried over 65% of the hard-of-hearing and deaf minutes in 2012. One would suppose that in a few years that TRS centers will become obsolete.

So what are the obligations of a carrier in providing calling to hard-of-hearing and deaf customers?  I believe your obligations are as follows:

  • You must be ready to inform a hard-of-hearing customer about their options on how to connect to TRS or VRS centers. The connection methods are different in each state.
  • To the extent that customers cannot afford the equipment needed to make these connections you must provide it. However, there is $10 million annual funding as part of the new TRS fund (the USF fund) which may reimburse you for any such costs.
  • You are required to keep records of inquiries and complaints by hard-of-hearing or deaf customers and must maintain these records for five years.
  • Any connection you make to advanced 911 must be made available to hard-of-hearing and deaf callers.
  • If you provide closed caption programming on a cable system, those same obligations must be met if you stream the same content on the web.
  • Any emergency alerts on your cable system must be broadcast both in writing and orally to accommodate hard-of-hearing and blind customers.
  • If you offer Video on Demand or VCR recording of programming, they both must capture the closed captioning for later playback.

I will cover requirements for blind customers in another blog. Those requirements are somewhat more complicated. Contact us if you want more information or if you want to understand how to get funding for hard-of-hearing equipment from the TRS Fund.

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