About the situation with accessibility in the US
I keep observing that for the majority of businesses in the United States, accessibility remains an important issue. Many organizations put continuous efforts into providing the necessary accommodations for their employees and customers. Still, those in charge often do not know how to do so effectively. During the pandemic, most of these efforts - effective or not - were put on hold or changed entirely, so accommodating the Deaf moved down in their list of priorities. In some cases, the Deaf were offered alternative measures, but ultimately made workplaces less accessible.
The following are assistive technologies that enable better communication among mixed teams of Deaf/hearing people:
Instant messaging apps; videophone, live Interpreters or videor emote interpreting (VRI); FM Loop or Bluetooth technology to be used by people with hearing aids, microphones, and headsets; Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART) or text-based UbiDuo for instant transcribing and translating spoken text and sound into words; SignAll Chat for instant ASL to English translation.
Additionally, as an easy solution, paper + pens, and whiteboard + dry-erase markers should be available for anybody – deaf or hearing - in every room.
Different body capacities require different solutions. They can be one-time events, like adding Braille to signs, installing ramps, or adapting doors and restrooms for wheelchair access. They could also be recurring expenses, like fees for using assistive solutions (e.g., software and/or hardware).
When it comes to public services, COVID has made hospitals more inclined to using VRI services. When a Deaf patient (for example) requests an ASL interpreter to be on-site, the medical provider may offer VRI instead of using an in-person interpreter for a few reasons. Firstly, having an interpreter in the same room increases the danger of contamination, and, depending on the size of the room, could violate social-distancing protocol. Secondly, wearing face-masks hinders effective communication. Facial expressions are a critical component of effective communication in ASL. Sadly, using a remote interpreter doesn’t provide the best quality of communication; still, it works. I believe Deaf patients should accept this as an optional accommodation during COVID-19.
Critically about available accessibility solutions
Video Remote Interpreting (VRI) is the most frequently offered solution instead of on-site sign language interpreters that are being implemented in medium/large-sized business entities due to the pandemic (social distancing). On the other hand, most small business entities are often hesitant when it comes to providing proper accommodation, fearing that it will put a huge strain on their finances. This belief has been proven to be erroneous.
Let’s look at the numbers. The average cost of having an on-site sign language interpreter is $90 per hour, while VRI averages at $4 per minute / $60 for only 15 minutes. In comparison, having an on-site interpreter is $90 per hour while VRI services would cost as much as $240 per hour. It becomes a business decision to retain the service that provides the accommodation.
There is another option when a company has a fair share of Deaf clients, could train hearing staff on the basics of ASL. For that, an hour of ASL classes each week supplemented by 24/7 available SignAll Learn Lab would be equivalent to the cost of 30 hours of VRI services. Having classes and the lab for 2-3 months would be enough to reach a solid A1-A2 level of ASL.
To top up the previous argument, numerous studies (Servera-Francés Piqueras-Tomás 2018; Kraft, Valdés, Zheng 2018; Bediako 2017; Bolton, Matilla 2015, show that social responsibility has become a key factor for clients’ loyalty in the XXI century. Consequently, Deaf-friendly businesses have better chances in the battle for market share.
About accessibility tendencies and prognosis
I’ve seen a tremendous amount of development for accessibility lately! Still, I feel that progress could move quickly if the members of the Deaf community are involved in the early stage of development. Often the members of the Deaf community try to address the lack of equal access because the product developments lack inclusive practices. I can also see that rapid tech advancement on accessibility is helping accelerate societal perception of the Deaf in many ways. The changes exist, but they are not always utilized properly.
For example, I’ve encountered assistive technology that is provided with limited resources, such as poor bandwidth, limited mobility support (e.g. monitor stand with the bridge, etc.), or video contrast/brightness limitations. On top of this, office personnel may not know how to set up the equipment or getting the app to be used. Equal access is of critical importance for all members of society. There should be no division based on origin, beliefs, or body capacities.
About changes desired by the Deaf community.
Education. Most business entities are not familiar with the existing barriers towards their employees or customers. Some of them lack the enthusiasm to create accessible workplaces. In fact, the latter violates the law. Disabilities, with their many forms and potential, remain a mystery to most workplaces. This misconception greatly limits the opportunities available to people with varying body capacities. Therefore, my first reaction would be to incentivize raising awareness about accessibility barriers and their solutions as a first step to improving this situation.
Cost. At the moment, the standard practice of corporation budget allocation designates each department to handle their budget, including the cost of accommodation for their employee individually. This practice ultimately redirects the responsibility to subsidiary departments instead of the whole company. In contrast, I believe umbrella funding[[i]] for accessibility will serve its purposes more effectively. Every department or structural unit should have the same access to providing accommodation that comes without any financial burden with the limited budget. An effective solution would be to allocate the whole operating fund to one responsible department, for example, Human Resources, or accessibility officers. This would alleviate undue departmental burden when implementing their fiduciary responsibilities and lessen the undue burden on departments where Deaf employees work. If the cost of accommodation is being handled under a general fund rather than an individual department’s, all of the departments will be able to allocate their own expenses as expected.
An example is as follows. Quite often, when I ask the provider for an ASL interpreter as an accommodation, it finds an unqualified translator for my appointment causing an undue burden for the provider and myself. I then have to ask to reschedule the appointment with a different (qualified) interpreter. This will create double the cost for the provider, as they have to redo the process. The reason for this is that providers usually have no resources to identify whether their contracted interpreters are actually qualified enough to provide the service.
Implementation. If the procedure for setting up accommodations’ variations would be widely and readily available, the implementation would be much smoother. While the providers do have the best intentions, most people (hearing) do not always have a clear understanding of how to provide proper accommodation to Deaf people. They require cooperation from our community members to make the workplace more approachable. The same applies to other categories of people with alternative body capacities. Sometimes, out of their best intentions, with a lack of knowledge in how to draft proper procedures, their accommodation efforts may not satisfy people who ask for it. Once companies have a clear direction on how to effectively provide and utilize accommodation, it will be a worldwide game-changer.
I can exemplify this with the next example. As a Deaf person myself and in fulfillment of a part of my responsibilities as a Coordinator of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), I manage sign language interpreting for internal use. I can assess whether the interpreter(s) is qualified to offer the service before hiring them for our clients/employees. Consequently, having a d\Deaf person or ally in a company to manage proper accommodations could save them manpower, resources, and money.
Sean Gerlis is a native of the New York City area and is the 3rd generation of his family to be deaf. Sean has 30 years of experience in the telecommunications industry building innovative products and services that transform communication capabilities for the Deaf and hard of hearing. One of his proudest accomplishments was leading the development in 2006 of one of the video relay service industry’s earliest successful software videophones.
As a subject matter expert on the Americans with Disabilities Act, Sean is heavily involved with New York’s local interpreting community, promoting higher standards of quality in interpreting through workshops and community education. Sean was involved in getting Text-to-911 launched in Rockland County and in the five New York City counties. During his spare time, Sean provides workshops on ADA-related topics concerning effective communication.
Sean is currently a certified Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Coordinator for the Board of Elections in the City of New York; advises on business development with SignAll; owns and operates SILAN Communications, a sign language interpreting referral services based in the lower part of New York State. Sean lives in West Nyack, NY with his two boys, Asher and Rowan, serves as contributing member of the Empire State Association of the Deaf, National Association of Deaf, Deaf Justice Coalition, and the Special Needs Advisory Group of the Office of Emergency Management in New York City.
Journalist: Zaryana Lisitsa
[i] Umbrella funding means that it is integrated into the operating costs instead of departmental budgets. Having sign language accommodation should be included in the general operating expense, not scaled down to departmental expense where a deaf employee works at. It will cause the department undue burden if they need to allocate the interpreting cost fund into their departmental budget. It would be better if the cost of accommodation absorbed the company's operating budget.