Disability Rights California

Interview with Attorney Fred Nisen, Beta Tester of California's Visually Assisted Speech-to-Speech Phone System

Fred Nisen is a staff attorney at Disability Rights California, the state's protection and advocacy agency for people with disabilities, established in 1978. A specialist in disability discrimination, he has been involved in some of DRC's landmark cases and recently ran its Northern California hotline for voters with disabilities during the November election. Fred is a frequent user of the statewide Speech-to-Speech (STS) Relay Service to allow people with speech disabilities to use the telephone and has beta tested and provided demonstrations of its newest feature, Visually Assisted Speech-to-Speech (STS).

Q: Can you give us highlights of how the basic system works and explain what the new feature adds to it?

The STS Relay Service enables people who have difficulty being understood to communicate by telephone.  When a call is made through STS, a specially trained STS Communications Assistant (CA) will be on the call to assist the caller.  The CA will repeat everything the caller says for the person on the other end or, at the caller’s request, only certain words that are difficult to understand.

With STS, the CA has only the person’s voice to use to determine what the person is saying.  With VA-STS, the CA, in addition to hearing the caller’s voice, can see the caller’s face.

Q: How is a call placed?

The person calls the provider’s VA-STS access number or 711 and asks the operator for VA-STS.  The CA connects video by calling the caller on Skype.  Once the video is connected, the caller gives the CA the phone number they want to call and any instructions the caller wants to give the CA to have.  For example: “Please call 510-555-1212, ask for Lauren and tell her that Fred Nisen is calling with Speech-to-Speech.  Please begin by saying ‘I need to make an appointment with Dr. Smith’”.

Q: Do you need to sign up for the service?

No.  They can just dial the provider’s access number for VA-STS.  It is helpful for a user to set up a profile with the provider(s) by calling their customer service department.

Q: What equipment do you need to make a call?

-         Speakerphone computer with broadband connection and a webcam

-         Skype needs to be downloaded and installed 

-         The caller needs to have a Skype ID which is available free at: http://beta.skype.com

Q: What does it mean to have a profile with the providers of this service?

The provider supplies information that might assist with the call and it shows up on the CA’s computer screen.  It could include the caller’s address so the CA will understand it quicker, preference on how the CA should handle the calls, such how the caller generally wants to be introduced and it includes speed dials (e.g., a caller could say “Joe Smith” and the CA can have that number).  For people using VA-STS, it is very helpful to include the Skype ID.  It would make it quicker to connect the video.   For a sample used to create a profile, go to http://www.hamiltonrelay.com/state_711_relay/profiles/ca_sts.html.

Q: What extra information or assistance does the speech-to-speech operator get from watching the caller on video?

If the CA cannot understand a word, they may ask the caller to spell it.  In some cases, the CA might misunderstand a word and may not realize that the caller is trying to correct the CA because they cannot see the caller’s facial expressions.

With VA-STS, the CA, in addition to hearing the caller’s voice, can see the caller’s facial expressions (e.g., shaking the head “yes” or “no”) and read their lips.  California currently has two relay providers.  One of them has the capability of receiving instant messages (IMs) to the CA.  This is very useful for callers who are able to type.

Q: In case some readers don't know, can you explain what Skype is?

Skype is a Voice-Over IP service and software application, which allows users to call each other, by voice and/or video.  Currently, the relay providers use Skype as the platform to allow VA-STS CAs to make video calls to callers to see their facial expressions.

Q: Do STS CAs get special training?

Yes.  From what I understand, STS CAs receive training on different speech patterns and how to explain the service to the party being called.  The CAs are taught what to do if they cannot understand a word (i.e., “Can you say that another way?” or “Can you spell it?”).

Q: What do CAs think about VA-STS?

From the results that I heard during the beta testing, they all found the video extremely useful in understanding callers.

Q: Finally, now that you have been using VA-STS for a while, do you have any tips for someone just starting to use it?

It is definitely helpful to put the Skype ID in the profile.  The CA can connect the video almost immediately.  Callers have to remember to look at the webcam and should use a lot of facial expression and use hand gestures.  The Skype window can be minimized to allow the person to use the Internet while on the phone, if necessary.  If a person can type, the IM feature can be very helpful for difficult words.  But, not all providers have capability to receive IMs.

For more information regarding Visually Assisted Speech-to-Speech Service please view the following:

Photos courtesy of Joey Gallardo