Sorenson's Pleasanton Interpreting Center Helps Break Down Communications Barriers for the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing

Among the many technology advances spawned by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the introduction of Video Relay Service (VRS) has a well-deserved reputation for razing communications barriers for deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals.

"The 1990 ADA created a mandate for 'functionally equivalent communications' for the deaf and hard-of-hearing," explains Ann Bardsley, Director of Public Relations at Sorenson Communications, the leading VRS provider, which has a site in Hacienda. Headquartered in Salt Lake City, the company invested millions of dollars to develop a high-quality, reliable videophone. The first model, the VP-100, was rolled out in 2002. The following year, Sorenson Video Relay Service(R) (SVRS(R)) made its debut, evolving into a round-the-clock national service available to deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals who use sign language to communicate.

By 2005, SVRS was handling tens of thousands of relay calls weekly - calls in which the deaf and hard-of-hearing were freely communicating with family, friends, and business associates through a qualified sign language interpreter, Sorenson videophone, TV, and a high-speed Internet connection.

The impact of this empowering technology has been significant, Bardsley says. "For example, just think of how, at work, hearing people pick up the phone as part of the day-to-day routine. VRS allows deaf individuals on the job to do the same thing. They can place and receive calls from hearing individuals in a similar fashion, making that total connection."

The "total connection" is the real key to the vitality of the service, accomplished by the incorporation of American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters in the relay process. "The deaf prefer to communicate in their native language, which for many is ASL," she points out. So much is expressed visually, through finger-spelling, or in the face, with raised eyebrows or clenched teeth, or by lifting the chin or the shoulders. "All of this is captured through VRS. It's amazing! The old TTY devices were slow and clunky, but VRS technology bridges the deaf and hearing worlds."

Sorenson's Hacienda office houses the Pleasanton Interpreting Center, one of many across the country where qualified and highly trained ASL interpreters fill their pivotal role in the relay process. All operate according to stringent federal regulations and with extreme sensitivity. "By definition, the interpreters are the functional equivalent of a dial tone," explains Spencer Stevenson, Director of the Pleasanton Center. "They are very professional and follow a strict code of ethics. By law, they are not allowed to interject their own personal comments and always maintain the highest level of confidentiality."

The company continues to innovate on the technology front, with, for example, the recently introduced Sorenson Video Center App, which allows users to access content like SignMail(R) messages and videos on their iPhone(R) or iPod touch(R).

While the privately held Sorenson does not release sales and employee numbers, it does note that 42 percent of its workers (excluding VRS interpreters and IP Relay communication assistants, who must be hearing) are deaf, and 84 percent are fluent in sign language.

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