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Mónica Guzmán

Stories at the intersection of tech and life from a boldly connected city.

April 19, 2014 at 9:33 PM

Using a phone when you can’t hear or speak? Here’s who makes it possible

At Purple Communications, Annette Quiroga, left, call-center manager, demonstrates the video relay service as she signs to video interpreter Priya May. (GREG GILBERT / SEATTLE TIMES)

At Purple Communications, Annette Quiroga, left, call-center manager, demonstrates the video relay service as she signs to video interpreter Priya May. (GREG GILBERT / SEATTLE TIMES)

Priya May has been the voice of hundreds.

“You have a customer using sign language contacting you with the Purple VRS system,” May, 31, spoke into a headset to the man who picked up at Seattle’s MOD Pizza. “I’ll be interpreting this call for you, OK?”

“Sure,” the man said, kind of delighted, and from May’s computer screen at Purple Communications’ call center in downtown Seattle, Annette Quiroga signed — and May interpreted — her way to a large cheese pizza.

Quiroga is not deaf herself. She manages the call center where May and 34 other American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters accept a roulette wheel of calls from deaf and hard-of-hearing people around the country. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) privacy rules keep me from even being in the room during a real video-relay service call. This was just a delicious demo.

Video-relay service, or VRS, has been a regulated service since 2002, but has boomed in the past five years after front-facing cameras brought the capability to smartphones.

It’s an extraordinary technology that’s done an extraordinary thing. It has freed deaf and hard-of-hearing people to do something the rest of us take for granted daily: have a fast-paced, honest-to-goodness phone call with anyone.

And until I happened to meet May at a brunch a few weeks ago, I had no idea her job existed — let alone the difference it makes.

“This is a transformative thing,” Leo Wyczalek, who was born deaf, told me on a VRS call.

“Simple things like making an appointment, giving a credit card to a company — simple things like that would take us forever,” he said. “VRS is fast and now we’re part of the world again.”

vrsinterpreterquote.jpg

Wyczalek said he gets on five to 10 VRS calls a day to run his West Seattle motorcycle-repair business, High Roller Cycles. He’s 49, but the voice that talked and laughed with me belonged to a man who could have been half his age, one of thousands of VRS interpreters standing by in call centers nationwide.

I dialed his number, which is registered to go first to a Purple call center. The interpreter picked up, told me he’d connect me, then — on screens I couldn’t see — signed with Wyczalek and became his voice.

I did my best not to ask questions faster than the interpreter could sign them, but I was impressed. “Interpreter management” is the art of syncing one person’s visual talk with the other person’s spoken talk for maximum flow. With an “um” here and a “hold on a sec” there, this interpreter kept me mostly in tune.

Wyczalek never knows who is going to voice his next VRS call. When the interpreter appears on his iPhone or equipped TV screen, Wyczalek smiles and begins signing.

Purple’s May, likewise, never knows what call is coming next. Will it be a check-in at work, a reunion with relatives, a curse-filled shouting match between enemies or something scary?

No matter what, her job is the same: Voice every sign, meaning for meaning, emotion for emotion — and never, ever get involved.

A small bell that sits on her desk and every desk at the call center reminds her what’s at stake. The 911 bell. When an emergency call comes in, she rings it, signaling for a colleague who’s not occupied to rush over and help. In 10 months on the job, May has rung that bell about four times.

“I was scared of doing VRS for a long time,” she said. “You don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Purple, which runs 17 call centers nationwide, is one of just six companies certified to offer VRS in the U.S. All told, the six companies bill the government for a nationwide total of 9 million to 10 million VRS minutes a month.

The services and equipment are free to users with hearing disabilities, thanks to a provision in the Americans with Disabilities Act. The government covers the costs with things like taxes on phone bills or, as is the case in Washington, an allocation to the state Department of Revenue.

Quiroga, whose husband and mother are deaf, saw them put up for years with the next best thing to VRS — a much slower text-to-voice interpretation service called TTY — before her husband introduced her to VRS about 10 years ago.

“He showed it to me, and I know this is cheesy, but I started crying,” she said.

Along with Purple, VRS providers Sorenson Communications and ZVRS also staff call centers in the region, which has what’s considered one of the largest deaf-blind communities in the country.

When I hung up with Wyczalek, I realized something. If I’d shown up at his garage, we would’ve used gestures, some words and his whiteboard to communicate. With VRS, we had a half-hour conversation. Free. Just like that.

Technology connects us. Much better, sometimes, than we’d ever expect.

Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Got a story about living with technology in the Northwest — or know someone she should meet? Send her an email, follow her on Twitter @moniguzman or send her a message on Facebook.

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