Video Relay Service (VRS)

As a hearing person, I’m fascinated by the technology used for Deaf people to communicate via telephone. First some historical background…

In the mid-1960’s the teletypewriter (TTY) became available thanks to a Deaf dentist and a Deaf physicist who used Morse Code to communicate long distance.  One would call a number where an interpreter would receive the typed words of the Deaf person, read them to the hearing person on the other line, then type in the words of the hearing so the Deaf person would then read the message.

Deaf comedian Keith Wann talks about a prank he used to do as a kid on a TTY…

Road Sign for TTY


Today the TTY has been replaced by the Video Relay Service (VRS). It’s the same thing in principle, but instead of typing, one can sign via camera to the operator who then relays the message via voice, then vice versa.

My first time experiencing this was interesting. A male Deaf friend called me using a VRS. I received the call from a female interpreter. The female interpreter says, “Hello, this is Hector” and of course my first thought is “uhhh, no it isn’t!”. If you’re not used to the service it is certainly interesting. Long pauses in the conversation and listening to a voice that isn’t the person you know both can feel a bit unsettling. But the trade-off is worth it.

There are several companies who make the relay services available. One that I’ve been noticing a lot is Purple. What I like from what I’ve seen so far is that Purple will provide access to their interpreter not just through a videophone at home or work, but also through just about any portable device that has a camera such as a PC, Mac, iPhone, iPad, iTouch, and Android.

In my research I’ve found that here in the USA, VRS equipment is provided for free by the US Government in accordance to the Americans with Disabilities Act. However,

It is important to understand that Video Relay is not government funded. It is not an appropriation and it is not a tax. Each telephone company is required to make their services accessible to individuals with disabilities… Each common carrier contributes 0.01137% of their telephone service revenue. They do this because not all common carriers provide relay individually. There had to be a way to pay those that provided relay for those that did not, therefore the interstate relay fund started. SOURCE

And If I understand it all correctly, I, as a hearing person, is not allowed to have VRS equipment or even use a service like Purple on my PC. However, I did stumble upon a service based out of Australia that adds a sign language interpreter skype! I’m still a little confused what I can and can’t do in starting a conversation with a Deaf person and what technology I’m allowed to use. Maybe a commenter can help me out?

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  • Wow! Thank you for the post — it was very helpful! I came across your blog after doing a google search for what I saw on “Switched at Birth.” I knew about TTY, but I had never known about VRC before. I’ve been hoping to learn ASL as well, so I’ll be bookmarking your blog to look through your posts and perhaps educate myself a bit more about deaf culture. Thank you for sharing!

    • Rob Williams

      Thanks for stopping by, Kimberly. If you’re wanting to learn ASL, I say just go for it! My approach was to just take ASL 1 and see how it went. Loved it so I’m continuing. And if you have’t already (since you’re on Facebook), I hope you’ll “like” 

  • Jared

    Telephone interpreting is a simple, easy to use, and cost-effective solution to overcome any language barrier.  By using Fluent Language Solutions’ telephone interpreting service you can instantly connect with an highly qualified telephone interpreter at any time, day or night.