More than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, Deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals across America are still struggling with a lack of access to information on public health measures and vaccination efforts. The state of Virginia is working to combat this gap in accessibility by launching an American Sign Language (ASL) video call center for residents of the state to access information on the pandemic in ASL.
While ASL interpreters have become commonplace at news conferences, Virginia is the first state in the nation to offer a call center that allows Deaf and hard-of-hearing residents to access information directly, without having to use interpreting services as a sort of middleman.
“American Sign Language and English are different,” Virginia Department for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing director Eric Raff said, in an interview with local news outlet WTOP. “For many interpreters, ASL isn’t their first language and they miss cues.”
For many in the Deaf and hard-of-hearing community, video call centers are a useful alternative to interpretation services because they provide individuals the opportunity to ask questions directly in their primary language, rather than having such interactions mediated through another language. Virginia’s Vaccine Call Center for American Sign Language Support currently employs a staff of deaf individuals who use ASL as their primary or native language. The ASL call center is a part of the state’s larger Vaccine Call Center, which also offers services in English and Spanish.
In developing the video call center, the state teamed up with Connect Direct, a subsidiary of the non-profit Communication Service for the Deaf (CSD) that provides translation services with a specialization in signed languages. Raff told Richmond’s ABC 8 that there are about seven other states in the country that are currently looking into similar call centers to accommodate their deaf and hard-of-hearing communities.
“Connect Direct applauds Virginia for its dedication to its ASL-using residents,” said Craig Radford, CSD’s Vice President of Strategy and Business Development. “Many state services, including health services, are often inaccessible to Deaf ASL users. We encourage more state governments to follow Virginia’s lead.”