For Police Officers: VRS, VRI or Live Interpreter?

By Jean F. Andrews

A deaf person calls 911. Through a relay interpreter, she signs that her husband is beating her and she is afraid because he has pulled a knife. Now, she has locked herself in the back bedroom. Please send the police, she signs. Emotionally distraught, she sobs and hangs up.

The relay interpreter interprets this scenario to the police department’s dispatcher who takes down the name and address of the deaf individual. The dispatcher then contacts the police officers. At this point, she informs the police that the person who called is deaf and uses sign language.

When the police officers arrive at the home and meet the deaf person, invariably, they take out a paper and pencil and start to write notes. They assume that the deaf person is literate and will have no problem reading their paper notes or reading their lips. Even under a stress-filled, anxious and emotional situation as domestic violence, they assume that note writing works fine. However, a Deaf individual with a low reading level can’t read the notes. Neither can she lipread the officers. Whether you are deaf or hearing, few of us could write a coherent sentence under emotional duress. Communication typically breaks down.

What are the police officers’ to do?

Sign language interpreter
Sign language interpreter (Photo credit: markvall)

In an ideal, ADA-compliant world, the dispatcher would have called a qualified sign language interpreter and have the interpreter meet the police officers at the home. This rarely happens. While many police departments now have contracts with 24/7 sign language interpreting agencies, typically police officers don’t call interpreters unless communication with the deaf person fails or worse, they assume that communication is happening when its not because deaf persons will nod as “if” they understand what is going on around them.

A qualified live interpreter should be present at the onset of any questioning involving a deaf person. Of course, an interpreter would not be necessary for a fender bender or a minor traffic violation, but they should be present in situations where the police officers question the deaf person regarding a serious event such as domestic violence or a burglary. Having a live interpreter present works best for the police officers too. They are better able to get reliable and complete statements from both the accuser and the victim more efficiently and more accurately than using charades, gestures, and facial expressions and written notes, which is much more time consuming.

A police officer may be familiar with relay operators on videophones on cell phones and ask the deaf person to call a relay interpreter to use. It is important to note that VRS (video relay service) is not appropriate in this situation. Indeed, the U.S. FCC (Federal Communication Commissions) mandates that VRS be only used in a situation where a deaf person would have to make a typical call through the telephone. VRS may not be used as a replacement for a live interpreter. And, according to the U.S. FCC regulations, deaf and hearing people in the same room are not permitted to use VRS to communicate, because the service is designated only for telephone calls and receives funding from Telecommunications Relay Service taxes. Furthermore, the FCC requires that if a VRS interpreter determines the callers are in the same location, they must advise both parties that the interpreter must terminate the call.

Here’s a handy Q & A fact sheet for police officers.

What is VRS (Video Relay Services)?

Image credit: Wikipedia
Image credit: Wikipedia

For deaf people whose primary language is American Sign Language (ASL), Video Relay Services (VRS) provide a tool for communicating with hearing people. VRS is a form of Telecommunications Relay Services (TRS) that allows deaf people to access the telephone system. It allows them to use ASL instead of English (a text telephone or TTY) to call a hearing person over a conventional telephone line. VRS provides a faster, and more effective communication than does use of the TTY. It allows for the use of a high-speed Internet connection plus a web cam or videoconferencing equipment to access an interpreter or a Communications Assistant (CA) in a call center. It relies on the interpreter to relay information to and from a hearing person on their telephone. It also permits hearing person to initiate a call to a deaf person.
There is another auxiliary aid, service, or accommodation that has been used in certain circumstances, e.g., hospitals and prisons, called VRI (Video Relay Interpreting) that is different than VRS.

What is VRI (Video Relay Interpreting)?

VRI (Video Relay Interpreting) is another accommodation where the deaf person and the hearing person are in the same room with a videophone or web camera and a television or a computer screen. The video interpreter works from another site and also uses a videophone or a web camera and television or computer screen to facilitate communication between a hearing person and a deaf person who uses ASL. With the VRI, the interpreter hears the voice of the hearing person, then he or she translates the message into ASL into the camera for the deaf person who is watching this translation on the computer screen. Then the deaf person replies by signing to the camera whereas the interpreter speaks the aural interpretation into a microphone so that the hearing person hears the translation. Schools, universities, business, hospitals, medical offices, law offices, and prisons have utilized VRI services. It involves an agency setting up a contract with a VRI agency to pay for these services.

What are the Differences Between VRS & VRI?

VRI and VRS both use interpreters and videophones with webcams. However there are critical differences between VRI and VRS services related to location of the users and the fees for using the services.

For instance, with the VRS, the deaf person and hearing person are in different locations and are connected through the interpreter at a VRS call center. As mentioned above according to U.S. FCC regulations, deaf and hearing people in the same room are not permitted to use VRS to communicate, because the service is designed only for telephone calls.
In contrast to VRS, with VRI, both the deaf and the hearing person are located in the same room and the sign language interpreter is located in an offsite office. There are also differences on who pays for these services.

On the one hand, the VRS services are free. In fact, the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) covers the costs of VRS calls through an Interstate TRS Fund. Calls are free to both parties and are relayed by the interpreter who is skilled and qualified in both receptive and expressive American Sign Language (ASL). However, the fees for VRI are paid by the agency requesting their use. For instance, if a police department purchases these services, they foot this bill.

What Does the Dept of Justice Say about the use of auxiliary aids and services?

In the 2010 revised Title II regulations, in the definition section, (28 C.F.R. 35. 104), “Auxiliary aids and services includes—1) qualified interpreters on-site or through video remote interpreting (VRI) services.”

Video remote interpreting (VRI) service means an interpreting service that uses video conference technology over dedicated lines or wireless technology offering high-speed, wide-bandwidth video connection that delivers high-quality video images as provided in 35.160(d).

What Are the Deaf Community Views on VRI?

Member of the deaf community use ASL as their primary form of communication and have deaf friends with whom they communicates using ASL in person and through the videophone. They find VRS to be enormously beneficial not only to their deaf friends but through a relay operator they can communicate with hearing people such as in ordering a pizza, making a doctor’s appointment, and so on.
On the other hand, using VRI for medical, legal, and mental health settings is viewed controversial by some members of the deaf community because it does not provide communication access such as live interpreters can provide. VRI is particularly troublesome in medical settings because it is sometimes difficult for the patient to sign clearly into the camera or to see the interpreter. Also, the VRI contact has to be set up in advance and in a location with consistent, reliable, high-speed Internet. Many homes and businesses cannot meet these requirements.

I have observed that police departments, detention centers, jails and prisons have staff who lack training in the use of auxiliary aids including interpreters, VRS and VRI technology, from the dispatcher to the detective to the sergeant to the chief of police.

Deaf individuals are entitled to the same communication access as hearing people have and this typically means the contacting of a live qualified sign language interpreter as well as the judicious use of auxiliary aids such as VRS and VRI.

Jean F. Andrews is a Reading Specialist and Professor of Deaf Studies/Deaf Education at Lamar University.

15 thoughts on “For Police Officers: VRS, VRI or Live Interpreter?

  1. today police came to my house. I asked police to call me on my videophone. I dont have time they “no” or ignored ADA Law. They did called me on my videophone but not in the same room by FCC policy. Need to change FCC policy to allow chat with police in the same room. Also that ADA law need to change more strict than before so they wont ignored. also criminal law has lot of change law become strict easy to arrested because of lack communicate or mistaked communicate.. That why need ADA law need to change. I will be speaking on videophone in Baton Rouge, Louisiana November 15, 2014. program called “Be Hear” thank you for read this.


    1. Thank you for taking the time to comment. I am sorry this happened to you, and I agree that police need to better understand the ADA, and that the law itself needs to be adjusted for better communications between the Deaf and the police. Good luck in Baton Rouge, and please let us know how it went.


  2. I am happy I found this article. Yes, I am in the same boat. My angry neighbor does trespass, nuisance, impersonal and harassment for one year. I asked several polices include 911 call for provide ASL interpreter. They refused, do know ADA and don’t care. I had under stress, emotions and frustrated because of write back and forth. I hate it. Two officers wanted to use VRS. I warned them about FCC’s policy for the same room plus some VRS interpreters have no certified. They ignored and called VRS. VRS explained them. The polices were upset and started to write back and forth. Anyway one police was witness and never arrest or give the ticket my neighbor which was on my property for six times (different days). I asked the police why? They refused to answer my questions. so my neighbor installed his solar lamps on my property without ask for permission. I called police but the police refused to come to look at it. So I took his four lamps off my property. My real angry neighbor called the police so the police was not nice and not friendly. He wrote simple words without interact or details. He simple wrote “arrest” I said go ahead and showed the police my arms. He said wait and changed mind to give me the ticket. I told police to arrest or give the ticket to neighbor for trespasses. The police said no. Later the police told my hearing sister in law on the phone and said I must pay the ticket without go to the court, if I want to go, I bring my own interpreter, and the court refused to provide ASL interpreter. I was puzzled and called the court. The court said I cannot pay the ticket so I have to show up. The court will provide ASL interpreter and lawyer. The police is very wrong (I think he wants money and not want to face the court himself). So I strongly feel the police discriminated against me and are audism me. I will report the court. If no successful, I will hire a lawyer to against my neighbor and police.

    I prefer I have live interpreter, not VRS or VRI (VRS often freeze, no 3D and too small screen (I stayed in hospital for few days, I used VRI but now I don’t like VRI).

    Thank you.


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