Summary of Findings
Overall, Canada appears to be one of a few countries (i.e., U.S., France, Germany, Sweden) that offer Video Relay Service (VRS) 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and 365 days a year. Other countries offer VRS for a limited time during the day, during the week and often not available on weekends or public holidays. Canada’s VRS is also available on-demand (in comparison to booking in advance) which offers a relatively high level of flexibility for VRS users in comparison to other countries with more limited hours of available service. Likewise, Canada appears to be doing well in offering prioritization for 911 emergency calling in comparison to other countries.
Presently, there does not seem to be a common standard for enabling d/Deaf people to contact emergency services 24/7/365 by VRS. Text-based options are often held out as the most reliable and most constantly available option, despite the difficulties d/Deaf people may have using text in emergency situations. In the U.S., all FCC certified providers are required to offer 24/7 service with prioritization of 911 calls. Indeed, our research indicates that several former VRS providers were breaking FCC rules, regulations, and the governing Communications Act during the period of 2010-2013. This led to the closure or to cease provision of VRS. It appears that the FCC has enforced regulations to increase the quality and fairness of VRS in the U.S.
In comparison to Canada, we found the U.S. offers more choice in the number of VRS providers available to consumers. It appears that these providers are working to advance their technologies for both hardware and software VRS applications. Malka Communications, Purple/ZVRS and Sorenson appear to be leading this advancement. This includes various options for notification of incoming calls via multi-colour light rings and Bluetooth flashing. Convo Relay appears to be offering competitive options with a strong focus on corporate social responsibility in support of the Deaf and hard of hearing communities. Their “sign-centric” app shows intriguing features and capabilities.
In Europe, there seems to be uptake in the use of the Total Conversation standard among the VRS providers we examined and based on the recent public opining research in Canada, there appears to be a clear preference among d/Deaf Canadians for platforms that operate according to that standard. The International Telecommunication Union’s Telecommunication Standardization Sector (ITU-T) has defined Total Conversation service as “[a]n audiovisual conversation service providing bidirectional symmetric real-time transfer of motion video, text and voice between users in two or more locations” (ITU-T, 2000; 2018). Total conversation enables people to choose to communicate with any combination of those three modes in real-time. Total conversation is an application of universal design principles, which supports communication among a broad range people. IVès, nWise, and Omnitor are among the companies that have operationalized Total Conversation in their digital platforms (IVès, 2021; nWise 2020d; Omnitor AB 2020). MMX is the platform widely used by the European relay services we explored.
Moreover, Canada is doing well in terms of providing VRS for both personal and business use. Other countries appear to offer a more complicated VRS only available through subscribing businesses/organizations (e.g., France, Germany). However, like other countries, such as the U.S., Canadians may be limited in their access to VRS depending on their access to communication technology and/or internet. Access may also be affected by an individual’s ability to pay for phone and internet, and/or available phone and internet infrastructure in some geographic locations. In comparison, Switzerland offers requires universal telecommunications service provided at affordable prices in all regions of the country.
Several providers are offering workplace and business supports and services for VRS and VRI in the workplace, schools and other organizations. These services indicate efforts to promote more accessible and inclusive communication among businesses, organizations and d/Deaf and hard of hearing individuals. Some providers, particularly in Europe, provide VRS exclusively for businesses and organizations and charge a subscription fee. These jurisdictions, such as the UK and France, place considerable emphasis on private funding as the revenue stream for financing VRS. Exceptions for access to public funding require individuals to apply for government assistance such that VRS may be used to help a person obtain or maintain employment, in which case departments responsible for employment services have an important role to play in funding on a person-by-person basis for eligible individuals. This means that d/Deaf individuals may be, in effect, excluded from using the services of non-subscribing companies/organizations unless the individuals pay for the mediating VRS/VRI service themselves.
In Canada, VRS, VRI and MRS are offered as separate services. Some other countries offer these services by the same provider(s) thereby increasing accessibility and choice of multiple modes of communication for service users. For example, in Australia, all relay services are provided by the National Relay Service (NRS) and delivered by Concentrix Pty Ltd. In the U.S. Purple Communications offers an array of services (including VRI), as does New Zealand Relay, Procom in Switzerland, and all providers in the United Kingdom.
Some jurisdictions, such as Germany, draw a clear distinction between VRS and VRI and provide public financing only for VRS. The stated aim is to facilitate conversations by phone for d/Deaf people. The state’s obligations begin and end in facilitating access to communication between communicants through the telephone system. However, other jurisdictions such as New Zealand do not draw sharp boundaries around VRS and VRI, understanding that in some situations VRS is the most suitable means for d/Deaf people to communicate with others and in other situations VRI is more suitable. The aim in these latter situations is more broadly framed as the state’s responsibility to facilitate d/Deaf people’s equal participation in communication, regardless of the situations in which they find themselves.
In terms of cost, Canada’s VRS is funded nationally by telecommunications service providers via the National Contribution Fund. This means that the cost of using VRS is not assessed to the caller. This is similar to the funding models in the U.S. and Australia. New Zealand and Sweden assesses no cost to the VRS user. VRS in New Zealand is Funded by the New Zealand Government through the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE).
In other countries (i.e., France, United Kingdom, Germany) VRS is paid for by subscribing businesses/organizations who may a subscription fee for the service. This means that the Deaf, speech impaired and hard of hearing community is limited to VRS communication to businesses/organizations that pay for VRS. The extent of access to VRS is thereby affected by the capacity of individual providers to sell and maintain subscriptions. In comparison, Canada is doing well in avoiding such potential barriers to access.
Related to who will pay for VRS/VRI is whether d/Deaf individuals have a right to such service that will be publicly provided or financed. If they have a clear right to the service and its financing, then they can exercise many other rights and tap into many opportunities. If in contrast there is no clear right to VRS/VRI that is widely available and publicly financed, then it becomes difficult for d/Deaf individuals to exercise other rights and to make the most of the opportunities that would otherwise be more open to them.
Overall, there are boundaries around VRS in several countries. This means that there are limits to the availability and accessibility of VRS for the Deaf and hard of hearing communities. These limits are highlighted in emergency situations, hours of availability, access to individuals, length of call, etc. Our research indicates that only Finland MAY offer a choice of interpreter, however this country does not appear to offer VRS, only VRI. Further research may explore potential opportunities to choose a VRS interpreter if it exists.
Some key gaps surround the exclusion of Indigenous languages and local/regional dialects by all VRS providers in all countries researched for this project. This reflects a gap in service and supports for diverse disability, d/Deaf, hard of hearing and deafblind communities. We also found limited opportunities for user choice of interpreters. This indicates a limited choice for VRS users to communicate with interpreters who reflect their experiences, social identities, and communication styles. This also indicates a limited amount of social power among service users. This limited power is compounded by often limited hours of service in several countries (Canada excluded). Our research indicates an overall need to enhance user power and control over VRS to progressively realize their right to communicate on an equal basis with others.
While Canada VRS helps raise awareness of VRS and assist customers to use the app, providers in other countries offer broader community awareness services to promote Deaf-owned businesses, and raise awareness of the needs, interests of the Deaf community. For example, Convo Relay in the U.S. is a Deaf-owned company that purports to develop connections to the Deaf community through access to resources for Deaf-owned businesses, Deaf professionals, and other organizations for the Deaf.
Innovative services include those that are run by and for the d/Deaf, deafblind and hard of hearing communities. For example, InterpreterNow is a social enterprise that invests its profits back into the deaf community ad is owned by Sign Language Interactions which in turn is a subsidiary of Sorenson Communications in the U.S. that specializes in communication services for d/Deaf people. Some of these providers also offer Deaf awareness training (e.g., InterpretersLive! And SignVideo in the UK; Malka Communications in the U.S.) to increase general awareness of the needs and interests of the d/Deaf and hard of hearing communities. These providers appear to be rooted in a sense of community and social responsibility. These providers may also be showing some connections between access to VRS communication and accessibility in society – both of which are inextricably intertwined.