Seattle, WA – There are as many as 40 million Deaf and Hard of Hearing people worldwide. By comparison, some estimates suggest that there are 37 million Americans who speak Spanish as a first language. If we can take a step back for a moment and look just at those statistics, it seems a little strange to think that when you pick up the phone to call a customer service hotline, it’s quite simple to connect with someone who speaks Spanish fluently, and yet if you try to place a call that communicates directly via American Sign Language (ASL), the task is difficult, time-consuming, and often wildly frustrating.

I have already made the case that the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community would benefit from more effective ways to bridge the language and cultural gaps—and indeed, that organizations who successfully bridge those gaps find themselves in an excellent position to reach an underserved and loyal customer base. But what I would like to explore in further detail with this article has to do with those statistics I mentioned in the first paragraph. How is it possible that as many as 40 million people have so much trouble finding customer service representatives who can communicate in their native language?

It all starts with a day in the life of the American Sign Language interpreter. But first, a little background: When a Deaf/Hard of Hearing person needs to communicate with a customer service representative, the most common method used is called Video Relay Service (VRS). In this scenario, there are usually three parties involved: (1) the Deaf caller, (2) the customer service representative, (3) and the interpreter. The interpreter receives the Deaf caller’s message in ASL via a video screen, then interprets and relays that message to the best of their ability to the customer service representative in a spoken language (e.g. English). The customer service representative then replies in the spoken language to the interpreter, who relays that message back to the caller in ASL. In this setting, the caller and interpreter must be able to see each other via video, while the interpreter and the customer service representative typically communicate the old-fashioned way, via voice only over a phone line.

There are well over 200,000 registered VRS users in the United States, and as recently as 2014, they logged nearly 125 million minutes on the service. Since then, demand has increased year by year. Despite this high demand, qualified ASL interpreters (particularly interpreters who communicate fluently in ASL or use it as a first language) are in extremely short supply.

For anyone who has ever worked in an environment where there was too much work for too little staff, it’s likely you can see the problem emerging already. For example, it has been estimated that there exists 1 qualified ASL interpreter for every 300 Deaf/ASL users. Coupled with the already incredible rate of turnover in most customer service settings, there is also a troubling rate of burnout among ASL interpreters. The vicarious trauma and physical exhaustion that ASL interpreters experience, coupled with being overworked due to the shortage of qualified interpreters are specific reasons for burnout.  Additionally, there are communication issues that tend to stem from third-party calling systems like VRS. Even if the ASL interpreter is highly fluent in the language, he/she must also relay the signed and spoken languages with remarkable efficiency while also picking up subtleties of tone in the spoken language and nuances of physical expression on the video side of the Deaf caller. On top of that, he/she must demonstrate a high level of knowledge and cultural understanding not only of the Deaf/Hard of Hearing Community, but also of the organization with which he/she is currently communicating. He/she typically communicates with dozens of different industries and organizations on a daily basis, during just one VRS shift, as well.

Naturally, superheroes like the one I just described are in painfully short supply. This leads to a variation in interpreter skill that can add to frustrations for all three parties to the VRS call—ASL caller, interpreter, and customer service representative. It also means that a female interpreter might sometimes have to perform sensitive calls for a male ASL user, and a male interpreter for a female ASL user. This might not seem like a big deal, but keep in mind that it sometimes takes a significant amount of call time just to get the customer service agent (who can’t actually see the caller over the phone) to understand why he/she is listening to a female voice for a male customer, or vice versa. Sometimes Deaf customers utilizing VRS must rely on someone who isn’t as well-versed in the terminology, products or other key factors of the organization he/she is trying to call, or someone who doesn’t stress the appropriate words or translate words perfectly. These hurdles can lead to herky-jerky, confusing, conversations that not only lack warmth and feeling, but cause inaccurate communication to occur, misinformation, errors and dissatisfied customers.

So imagine you are an ASL interpreter working in an understaffed setting. You have to be sharp and quick with both your spoken and signed languages. You must be well-versed in an improbably broad array of organizational cultures, messages, and manners of speech. You have to be able to speak/sign capably to dozens of key points that emerge out of dozens of American industries, regions and cultures. You have to know Deaf/Hard of Hearing culture and understand the nuances of speech associated with ASL as well as spoken languages. You have to be skilled with running a call that is partially video and partially audio. And you have to conjure all of this knowledge quickly and efficiently. Then, after your ten-minute call with one client, you hang up and move on to the next client—who may be from a different part of the country, a different sex, a different age, and has a wholly different reason for his/her call to a completely different organization/industry. Are you exhausted yet?