- Insights Into the Autonomy of Video Relay Interpreters
As video relay services (VRS) exit their second decade of existence, the book Professional Autonomy in Video Relay Service Interpreting, by Erica Alley, examines the scope and development of their application in the United States. Alley, who has worked for a VRS company, draws on her own experiences and those of other professionals in the industry to research the positive and negative impacts of VRS. Alley's text examines many kinds of changes but focuses on interpreter autonomy within VRS from the perspective of the interpreters themselves, whom the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) titles "Communication Assistants" (CAs). By situating CA workers within the systems of their employment, Alley asks, is CA autonomy impeded or better managed following the FCC's implementation of new regulations that affect their work? The text begins with a review of how professions, including interpreting, are valued in society. Via a progressive lens, Alley clarifies that CA workers are indeed professionals, whose work is defined and shaped by both social and legal expectations. Alley's chief contribution in this text is her examination of how FCC regulations may control and possibly inhibit CA autonomy in the VRS profession.
Throughout the book, the author identifies social and practical outcomes of emerging communication technologies and their impact on the deaf and hearing communities who use VRS. Alley reviews the history and development of the first, bulky TTYs manufactured in the 1960s, then describes the development of text relay services, and finally the advent and rapid expansion of VRS services into the 21st century. The text summarizes the social impacts of interpreting and communication technologies, classified in terms of both positive and negative impacts that affect both the deaf and hearing communities. Alley asserts that the social impact on the deaf community has been particularly profound. VRS has forever changed the ways in which the deaf community sees and relates to itself, as well as the wider hearing world around it. Historically, American Sign Language interpreters developed in response to needs arising at home. Interpreters were often the child of deaf adults who acquired interpreting skills in order to address the shared needs of language and culture within the family; sometimes another member of the community would share this need. The advent of VRS coincided with the growing need to incorporate CAs into a respected profession. CAs are presently and historically an important bridge who link deaf and hearing communities. In addition to a rising professional [End Page 128] class of interpreters, technological development was also a shaping force that changed this dynamic relationship.
The history of VRS coevolved with the rise of a professional class of sign language interpreters but also the growing involvement of governmental regulatory bodies like the FCC that fund the industry. As time, law, and the technology changed, the role of the CA became increasingly linked to economic concerns, including the VRS companies' need to generate profit. Alley explicitly links the professional role of the interpreter and regulation by governmental control. She documents cases of VRS corporate rules that were motivated by capitalist, profit-driven motives rather than long-established codes of ethical behavior (p. ix). Alley describes historical parallels between spoken- and sign language interpretation as professions, then argues that as the FCC became the main source of funding for VRS companies employing CA workers, the purpose of sign language interpreters inverted. Where initially the role of the interpreter was to meet the needs of deaf consumers, at present, the role is now more robustly linked to profit incentives. Two consequences of this development are the devaluing of the deaf consumer and the diminishing of the autonomy of the CA. Because the FCC is the main source of VRS operational income (it is also in charge of industry oversight), it wields disproportionate control of VRS operations. Consequently, as Alley describes, the autonomy of the CA becomes at risk, which also increases the potential for decreased quality of service.
Another of Alley's compelling arguments is her description of how FCC...