15 states provide this little-known enhanced relay service. Could it assist you to make phone calls independently?
Last month, AT3 Center News and Tips drew attention to Speech-to-Speech Relay (STS) and the work of Bob Segalman, Ph.D., to expand telephone relay services to better assist individuals with speech disabilities. This month we are highlighting the next evolution of STS Relay, VA-STS, which is an acronym for “visually-assisted” or “video-assisted” Speech-to-Speech Relay (both terms are in use).
What is VA-STS Relay?
VA-STS Relay helps persons with speech disabilities communicate with anyone who has a phone number through a telephone relay operator and the addition of a webcam or videophone. As with standard STS relay, the user connects to an operator who is trained to listen to and re-voice speech that may be unintelligible to the other party.
What makes VA-STS different from standard STS Relay is the addition of a webcam (or videophone) and broadband internet. This internet protocol (IP) video technology allows a relay operator to see the person who has a speech disability. The operator can see a caller’s facial expressions, lips, gestures, cue cards and even text from an AAC device to better understand and convey their messages and meanings.
I had a stroke in 1993, and as a result, my speech is impaired. Using the telephone is often a frustrating experience, and takes much more time than it should. Having a video complement to the oral communication would help save on time and expense for me, and for the others who I call. Like many other kids his age, my son, Marcus, is a consumer of speech therapy, and many people, including me, rely on non-verbal cues in discerning what he is saying. For other kids and adults, the reliance on non-verbal cues is much greater, and VID STS would be a great aid. —a comment filed with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)
VA-STS Relay is not mandated by the FCC but is currently available in 15 states at no charge to callers (according to an internet search of the service). In 2011, Speech Communications Assistance by Telephone (Bob Segalman’s organization), along with eight additional national disability organizations petitioned the FCC to include VA-STS in the Telecommunications Relay Service mandate. The FCC acknowledged the petition in 2013 but no action has yet been taken.
How does VA-STS Relay work?
VA-STS requires a caller with a speech disability to have a telephone (preferably with speakerphone), a computer with a webcam (or a videophone) and a broadband internet connection. The caller dials 711 and requests VA-STS. The relay operator uses a video conferencing service (such as Omnijoin or Skype) to connect with the VA-STS user.
The relay operator next dials the person the caller is trying to reach. This party does not need video equipment to receive a phone call from the caller with a speech disability; they will not see the caller and they may not even hear their voice depending on the preference of the caller with a speech disability. This is the power of this service for persons who, before STS Relay, struggled to be understood (and not get hung up on) and use a form of communication that most residents of the United States take completely for granted. The caller is in control of the phone call.
Consumers create profiles and preferences
Consumer profiles allow relay operators to review a user’s preferences before initiating calls. Users establish the type of relay they prefer, their preferred language, a standard message to introduce calls, if they wish to mute their own voice, a list of frequently dialed numbers, the type of equipment they have (an AAC device, for example, which can send prepared text to operators), and additional directions as desired (such as to re-voice only as needed or to re-voice everything).
SPRINT, a provider of STS Relay in several states, now also offers an email set-up option for users to provide instructions in advance of making specific phone calls. Users can write how they’d like to introduce themselves and other instructions or messages related to an individual call. (These emails are discarded after 24 hours.)
How can I get started with VA-STS Relay?
If you or someone you know might benefit by Video-Assisted Speech-to-Speech Relay, contact your local relay service provider (711) and learn if the service is available or coming to your state. Some states, like Louisiana, have an STS User Training Line. This is a free service for people who want to try out STS, ask questions and/or practice making calls.
Learn more from your state. Below is VA-STS relay information for the 15 states currently providing this service: