Technology for deaf and hearing-impaired individuals has come a long way in recent years. It's now simpler than ever to communicate over voice and video—good thing too, given how the pandemic made that more or less necessary. 

With that said, the vast selection of available communications services ends up being something of an alphabet soup for the uninitiated. Understanding the unique characteristics of each starts with making sense of the different abbreviations. From there, you can more easily determine which service is the best option for you. 

Video Relay Service (VRS)

VRS involves the use of an interpreter as a 'go-between' to allow someone who's hard of hearing to communicate over the phone. How it works is relatively simple. First, the hearing-impaired individual connects to an interpreter via a webcam or specialized television. 

They then use the video link to communicate with their interpreter via sign language. Although VRS services typically use American Sign Language (ASL), interpreters are available for many different dialects. Once the connection has been established and tested, the interpreter then phones the individual with whom the client wishes to speak. 

The interpreter then verbally communicates with the hearing party while translating all verbal speech to sign language. VRS can be configured so that when a deaf person receives a phone call, it's automatically routed through the service. Notably, this is entirely free of charge and available 24/7.

Video Remote Interpreting (VRI)

VRI is very similar to VRS in that both services involve the use of an interpreter. However, where the two differ is in the fact that in the case of VRI, all parties involved can view video of one another. VRI is also frequently used when a deaf and hearing person are in the same location.
VRI calls can either be ad-hoc or scheduled in advance. They are typically charged on a per-minute basis, with the businesses that employ the services responsible for covering the cost. The technology sees frequent use in telemedicine, allowing hearing-impaired medical professionals to conduct appointments with hearing patients or vice-versa.

The most significant benefit of VRI over VRS is the fact that sign language frequently incorporates body language and facial expressions. This means that a great deal can be lost in translation with other services. Again, this makes VRI particularly important to healthcare, where even a minor misunderstanding or misinterpretation can have dire consequences.

Telecommunications Relay Service (TRS)

While VRS and VRI both use video, TRS leverages one of several different technologies depending on the preferences of the hearing impaired individuals.  In every case, the first step in using TRS is for the hearing impaired person to call a communication assistant. Once a line has been established, they then dial the number of the person they want to call. 

The most common and widely-used TRS interface is a teletypewriter (TTY). This specialized phone has a keyboard to allow the individual to type what they want to say, and a screen to display text from the communication assistant. The assistant reads out what the hearing-impaired person says and types the words of the party on the other end. 

Per the Federal Communications Commission, other TRS technologies include
  • Voice Carry Over. Instead of typing, the hearing-impaired individual uses their own voice while still receiving text replies from the communication assistant. 
  • Speech-to-Relay. A specialized service geared towards individuals with speech difficulties. This requires no specialized device, and instead simply has the communication assistant interpret and repeat the person's words. 
  • Captioned Telephone Service. For individuals with some residual hearing. This service uses a specialized phone with a text screen but no keyboard. A communication assistant acts as an interpreter. 
  • Shared Non-English Language Relay Services. Different language options may include French and Spanish. 
The Internet Protocol Relay Service (IPRS) is something of a modernization of TRS. Instead of requiring a specialized device, an IPRS call can be conducted over any Internet-connected device. There's also an IP-based version of the Captioned Telephone Service. 

Important Things to Remember About Communication via Relay Services

Many hearing individuals lack experience with relay services—and that's okay. You don't need any specialized equipment. Instead, you just need to keep a few things in mind regarding general etiquette. 
  • If you receive a phone call that announces itself as the relay service, don't hang up. It's not a telemarketer. 
  • Learn abbreviations like GA (Go Ahead), SK (Stop Keying), and SKSK (Conversation Ends). 
  • Verbally indicate when you are finished speaking.