Relay system eases communication between deaf, hearing

LAKE STEVENS — It’s a service that helps bridge the gap between people who are deaf and people who can hear.

In a nondescript Smokey Point strip mall office, dozens of American Sign Language interpreters employed by the nationwide company Sorenson Communications use the company’s video relay service to help people who use sign language make phone calls to people who don’t.

Friends Linda Bontrager, 52, an instructor at Everett Community College, and Nancy Bloomfield, 47, a stay-at-home mom, who both are from Lake Stevens and are deaf, use the service daily. Administered by the Federal Communications Commission, the video relay service is free to all who need it.

Here’s how it works:

Bloomfield wants to call her doctor’s office to make an appointment for one of her four children. Through the video relay connection on her computer or her smartphone, she dials the doctor’s office and is simultaneously connected with an interpreter. The receptionist at the doctor’s office answers the phone and the interpreter explains that she will be voicing what Bloomfield has to say.

Bloomfield signs to the interpreter and the interpreter speaks to the receptionist. In turn, the interpreter signs back the receptionist’s response. People using standard phones who want to call clients of the video relay service also are automatically connected with an interpreter.

It’s much easier and faster even than typing an email, which can be void of emotion and tone, Bloomfield said.

“And I am less dependent on my children, who should not have to interpret family business stuff,” Bloomfield said. “I can call friends, order a pizza, call 911 or anything in between.”

In addition, the service allows deaf people to communicate in the language they know best, American Sign Language.

“There are few deaf who want to speak aloud for themselves and few who read lips well enough to rely on it,” said Bontrager, who teaches sign language at EvCC.

Most of the deaf people in Snohomish County are a community of friends who share the challenges of living in a hearing world, Bloomfield said. They are bilingual, fluent in English and American Sign Language.

And, yes, there is a big difference.

Jackie Brown, 57, a friend of Bontrager’s and Bloomfield’s, works as an American Sign Language interpreter for Sorenson.

She explained that American Sign Language grammar is different and that signed sentences are punctuated by facial expressions, body language and an emphasis in hand movements.

A sign language sentence is comprised of tense, topic and comment, as in “Today, the store I go,” instead of “I will go to the store today.”

“So if American Sign Language is spoken, it sounds like broken English,” Brown said. “Linda Bontrager, for example, is an intelligent woman. My job speaking for a deaf person is to know how to read and match all the inflections, emotion and emphasis she intends. My job is to make Linda sound like the brilliant woman that she is.”

The interpreter speaks for the deaf client. If a deaf person swears, the interpreter swears. If the deaf person laughs or cries, the interpreter laughs or cries, Brown said.

“I love working as an interpreter. It’s the best job I’ve ever had,” she said.

The video relay service has been around for about 10 years and the Arlington office of Sorenson Communications has been operating since 2007, company spokeswoman Dana Robinson said. Sorenson’s video relay services flow more naturally than text-based telecommunications services for the deaf, Robinson said.

Bontrager said she is pleased with the service and expects that the company will continue to improve the video relay as the technology develops.

Brown, Bloomfield and Bontrager are eager for more people to know about the video relay service so that people don’t hang up when they answer the phone.

“Many businesses are not deaf-friendly,” Bontrager said. “People think they are getting a prank phone call. It makes it difficult and you have to call back.”

A Gallaudet University research study shows that about two to four of every 1,000 people in the United States are deaf, though more than half of those people became deaf relatively late in life. However, if people with severe hearing impairments are included, then the number is up to 10 times higher.

“The video relay service is helping deaf and hard-of-hearing people achieve equal access to the world,” Bontrager said.

Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427; gfiege@heraldnet.com.

For more

To learn more about the Sorenson Video Relay Service, go to www.sorenson.com. To connect with other people in the deaf community in Snohomish County, go to www.everettdeafchurch.com. The state’s regional Hearing, Speech and Deafness Center is at www.hsdc.org.

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