Bulletin: Rethinking VRI (Video Remote Interpreting) and the Reason 360 Translations Does Not Support It

Last year, 360 Translations contemplated implementation of Video Remote Interpreting (VRI) as a solution for our valued clients. We even considered this a viable alternative for medical institutions as they grappled to meet the needs of their deaf patients. Before the launch of VRI, I took a closer look at the capabilities of this technology, as well as the Deaf Community’s and other stakeholder’s position on this technology. My question: “Would VRI be an equal/acceptable substitute to on-site interpretation?” I read articles and position papers by the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) and the National Association of the Deaf (NAD), both of which highlight a lengthy list of limitations depending upon setting and end users abilities and skills.

On a related note, I worked for a number of years as a video interpreter for a video relay service (VRS) provider. While VRI and VRS have some differences in platforms, the technology is basically the same, and what the deaf person, interpreter, and hearing user see, hear and experience are nearly identical via VRI and VRS. In fact, in most instances, VRS is superior due to the use of “fat” transmission lines used by all VRS providers, while VRI providers may be transmitting via a home-based webcam on a simple internet connection (cable, fiber, etc.) to higher speed connections; one cannot be sure unless the VRI provider truly spells out their transmission speed and can guarantee that speed. Here again, while the provider may be transmitting at super-fast speeds, the end user is at the mercy of their own connection, which is often subjected to retarding factors such as firewalls and multiple limitations in the use of WiFi, etc.

Anyway, after much research, and viewing recent case law that the use of VRI has promulgated via settlements with medical institutions (see United States of America v. Dimensions Health Corporation, Laurel, Maryland), which are numerous, I became convinced that VRI is NOT a viable option or even substitution for on-site interpreting. NAD even points out that if VRI is used, it should only used until an on-site interpreter can dispatched to the hospital. And hospitals are only one consideration, as this concern extends to legal settings (courtroom, police station, etc.). Drawing on my VRS experience as a video interpreting, I knew full well the limitations of this technology. Language nuances are greatly reduced via VRS/VRI, and message equivalence suffers. There is no interpreter on-site here, which immediately sacrifices multidimensional, in-touch language interface, critical to accurate translation of the spoken word to ASL, and vice versa. I knew in good conscience that I could not provide this inferior product to our clients. It would be a disservice to them and the Deaf and Hard of Hearing clients they serve, and whose interests they should be protecting.

It doesn’t stop with VRI. Ubiduo, a device marketed by sComm, assumes written language fluency on the part of the both parties. This is critical, as a deaf person’s first language is often ASL, and written language fluency can be limited. It also assumes that both persons using the device have no time constraints, as speed of communication is dependent upon the speed of typing. Perhaps not a good choice in most situations, but it has its place, though limited. On a recent visit to RIT/NTID (Rochester Institute of Technology/National Technical Institute for the Deaf) we saw the Ubiduo used all over campus as a means for college students to communicate with their hearing counterparts. It serves a need here for short, quick communication. Not so in interpreting situations, despite the fact that we are seeing these being used in Federal agencies, and elsewhere, as a replacement for on-site interpreting services. This is a sad commentary on the value we place on communication between deaf and hearing people.

Technology is ever-advancing, and perhaps one day there will be auxiliary means for interpreting that will successfully supplement the use of on-site interpretation. VRI and Ubiduo, while interesting and unique, are not a substitution.


Daniel B. Swartz, PhD, CI, CT, SC:L
Executive Director
360 Translations

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