New tech helps deaf citizens get federal agencies on the line

New tech helps deaf citizens get federal agencies on the line

The Census Bureau and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission will be the next agencies to provide direct video calling to ease communications with the deaf community.

The technology will connect a deaf citizen with an American Sign Language-fluent call operator at the agency in order to improve customer service and incorporate digital tools to benefit those with hearing or speech impairments, according to a White House blog.

Without direct video capabilities, deaf citizens contact government agencies through a third-party interpreter.  In most cases, a deaf caller makes a call through a video relay service (VRS) administered by the Federal Communications Commission. The call is routed through the Internet to a VRS sign-language operator, who then relays information and inquiries back and forth between the citizen and service representative. This is also the process deaf citizens go through to make a 911 emergency call.

According to the FCC, 125 million minutes of these types of calls were made in 2014.

Agencies are now finding ways to utilize broadband Internet connections to offer a direct and clear call to customer service departments, without the VRS middleman.  

According to the blog post, the FCC was the first federal agency to provide direct video calls last year using the Internet and any computer or mobile device with a camera.  In June, the Small Business Administration followed with a direct video communication pilot offering services in a more efficient way to deaf entrepreneurs.

To encourage the expansion of direct video calling, the FCC is also funding Video Access Platform, a free open-source software application designed to work in collaboration with direct video calling technology. The program will allow users to use texting and video-calling capabilities simultaneously on any computer or smartphone while communicating with customer service representatives.

The platform is expected to be released in May 2016. It and will be HIPAA compliant and available for state and local governments, nonprofit organizations and companies.

About the Author

Amanda Ziadeh is a former reporter/producer for GCN.


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