Virginia has become the first state to provide real-time video chat access to its COVID-19 information call center for users of American Sign Language (ASL).
The face-to-face service for the deaf and hard of hearing aims to offer equal access to state assistance in a format more likely to offer clear information that’s less susceptible to miscommunication.
The Vaccine Call Center for American Sign Language Support is staffed by deaf employees trained to provide information about the coronavirus pandemic.
“American Sign Language and English are different,” Virginia Department for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing director Eric Raff said. “For many interpreters, ASL isn’t their first language and they miss cues.”
Communicating with WTOP through an interpreter for the interview, Raff explained how ASL includes facial expressions. “Sometimes an eyebrow movement can indicate a question, for example. But, it’s part of the grammar,” he said.
Video chat agents communicate directly with people who call in with no “middleman” needed to type translations on either end of the call. Raff said that also saves time.
The service is available every day from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
ASL users have two ways to connect: by videophone at 877-VAX-IN-VA (877-829-4682) or by clicking the “ASL Now” button at vaccinate.virginia.gov.
You can see how it works here (a transcript of the conversation appears below the video):
Agent: Hello! Thank you for calling Virginia COVID-19 Information Center. My name is Heidie. How can I help you?
C: Hi Heidie, my name is Brandon. I know I have an appointment scheduled for tomorrow, but I forgot the scheduled time. Can you help?
A: Sure! I can check for you. Your first name is Brandon. What is your last name?
A: It is tomorrow at 11 a.m.
C: Got it.
A: Thank you. Have a great day and stay safe!
C: You too! Bye.
“Connect Direct applauds Virginia for its dedication to its ASL-using residents,” Craig Radford, Vice President of Strategy and Business Development at CSD said in a news release. “Many state services, including health services, are often inaccessible to Deaf ASL users. We encourage more state governments to follow Virginia’s lead.”
Noting that deaf people are at higher risk of unemployment than the general population, Raff said services like this are another potential avenue to jobs. Staff for the call center includes recently-hired deaf Virginians who are fluent in ASL.
“So, not only do we have better customer service, better access to information — but we also have four deaf people employed,” Raff said.
Raff said he’s thrilled the Department of Health was willing to take advantage of an opportunity to provide equal access.
“We wanted the same thing; we had the same goal. Their goal is to provide vaccination information to the citizens of Virginia, and our goal is to provide communication access,” Raff said. “We’re really excited to be the first state in the country to do this.”
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