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Connecting the deaf with the hearing: Moorhead call center growing, facing tech changes

MOORHEAD - When Jerry Geist was growing up in Devils Lake, N.D., his mom would make phone calls on his behalf.

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MOORHEAD – When Jerry Geist was growing up in Devils Lake, N.D., his mom would make phone calls on his behalf.

"That was kind of awkward," he said recently through a sign-language interpreter.

His mom would sometimes tell the person on the other line things that he hadn't said - or wanted to say - but that she thought was worth mentioning, he recalled. "It was never a direct conversation for me. It always had to go through that middle person."

Things changed for the better when he was a teen and a "relay" service became available. In relay, the middle people are still there but they are operators trained to repeat only words and emotions conveyed to them; he describes them as "transparent."

Today, Geist, who still relies on the service, works for a relay call center in Moorhead. Started nearly two decades ago, the center is part of CSD, a nonprofit group that serves more than 30 states and is seeking to expand farther.

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But relay is also changing as new technology, such as email and cellphone text messaging, give deaf people more ways to communicate.

Voice for the deaf

Every year around this time, CSD increases recruitment efforts because most of its operators return to college and are unable to work full time, said Nancy Soyring, the Moorhead-based director of CSD's U.S. relay operations.

The job can be tough.

CSD must have operators available 24/7 to connect deaf clients, who can send only text messages, with users of regular phones, who can only communicate by voice. Operators must be prepared to relay any kind of call, from a pizza order to a 911 call to extremely personal conversations, Soyring said. Even calls that may involve immoral or illegal activities must be relayed.

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 requires carriers to provide phone services to deaf people that are "functionally equivalent" to phone services for hearing people. This means, among other things, operators must relay verbatim what they hear or read and must not repeat it to anyone else. They are meant to be as transparent a conduit of information as a copper phone line.

"It's truly a passion that they're allowing deaf and hard of hearing people to have that access to the phone," Soyring said of her operators. "It seems a lot of them know somebody who is deaf or hard of hearing."

CSD now has the equivalent of 60 full-time operators and is adding five more. But the number of hires it seeks to make is a bit larger because most of the new employees would likely work part time. Soyring said they start at $9.50 an hour and can go as high as $12.50, not including 50 cents extra paid for overnight shifts and $1 for bilingual speakers of Spanish and French.

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Changing service

The roots of relay services began in the 1960s with the invention of teletypewriters, devices that allow people to exchange text messages over a phone line, according to the National Association of the Deaf. But they only worked when both caller and receiver had a TTY device.

Within a few years, the deaf community would create relay services in which operators, who can hear, connect the gap between TTYs and regular telephones.

CSD, founded in 1975 as a sign-language interpretive service by a deaf activist in Sioux Falls, S.D., has been in the relay business since TTY messages were literally typed out on a sheet of paper. The group opened the Moorhead call center in 1996 with its longtime partner, the telecommunications giant Sprint, which now has contracts in 33 states, Puerto Rico and New Zealand.

But the relay business is also changing rapidly.

Many states are reporting declining call volume in TTY-based relay. The state of Minnesota, for example, reported in January that call volume for all state-run relay services in 2014 was half of what it was in 2005. TTY relay made up just a fifth of all relay calls in 2014; the rest included relay calls that involve people able to speak but are hard of hearing.

Part of the reason is the growing usage of email and text messaging on cellphones and online, but many deaf people are also migrating to Internet-based relay, including video relay. Unlike in TTY relay where there are only two major government contractors, Sprint and Nebraska-based Hamilton Relay, there are 10 contractors for Internet relay; CSD also provides Internet relay through Sprint.

Soyring said CSD has seen a reduction in TTY-relay call volume, too. But she said it remains relevant to many people, especially rural residents whose phone landline remains the most reliable telecommunications link.

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Geist, who has depended on relay for 30 years, said he and many others are just used to how it works. But he said he's also using video relay these days because sometimes it's just more comfortable to sign.

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