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Higher call volume for IP captioned telephone services and video relay services during the COVID-19 pandemic, plus longer call times, increased wait times, we heard. That has left some in the hearing loss community isolated and frustrated. Consumer advocacy groups, industry and the FCC are working to respond, stakeholders said in interviews.

The FCC granted providers regulatory waivers to help address temporary personnel challenges by allowing interpreters and captioning agents to work from home. A pilot on viability of home-based VRS interpreters using American Sign Language began in 2017 (see 2001280006). Permanent rules allowing the practice take effect June 8 (see 2005070003).

Providers and advocacy groups said the FCC was proactive in seeking ways to meet increased demand. “The FCC was really good as the crisis ramped up to ask what kind of waivers we needed,” said Scott Wood, CEO-Sorenson Communications and CaptionCall. In early April, the FCC waived requirements on VRS interpreter certifications for the program (see 2004030036). The waivers expire May 15. Wood said his company asked for an extension. The regulator “is considering this matter and expects to address it shortly,” an FCC spokesperson said.

Consumer advocates want more. Telecommunications for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Inc. petitioned for a temporary waiver of telecom relay service user registration requirements. “Providers were very supportive” in their comments early this month, said TDI CEO Eric Kaika. Replies are due Monday (see 2004200010).

The two waiver orders have given the providers a number of tools to help them reduce the wait times,” an FCC spokesperson emailed Friday: Providers told the FCC that as they implement the waivers, wait times go down. “We continue to have discussions with the providers regarding additional needs as they arise,” the spokesperson said. The FCC’s national deaf-blind equipment distribution program, iCanConnect, provides gear needed to make communications accessible to low-income individuals who are deafblind, the FCC said.

Industry says the number of calls have been growing exponentially” since stay-at-home orders started, said Kaika. Hearing Loss Association of America Director-Public Policy Lise Hamlin uses IP CTS. She’s using the service more than ever to keep in touch with family. She still texts and emails but finds it important to hear her New York City nurse son’s tone of voice for reassurance.

It’s a bit of a wait because more people are using captioned services, and they’re talking longer,” said World Institute on Disability Managing Director-External Affairs and International Development Loretta Herrington, a member of the Clear2Connect Coalition. “This has a huge impact on the hearing loss community because they’re isolated.” With stay-at-home orders, people with disabilities might lose contact with personal assistants who help with day-to-day needs, as well as the social networks that come from working, she said.

Sorenson Communications and CaptionCall have “been blessed” with double-digit percentage increases in calls, said Wood. “Volumes started to spike after schools closed and my workers had to be at home.” Early on, wait times for IP CTS increased significantly, he said. The sister companies moved many staff from call centers to working from home. They sent computers, webcams and routers home with staff, and invested in cloud services, Wood said. The companies continue to operate call centers, with “checkerboard seating” for social distancing. Walls backing the cubicles were already high to be backdrops for the video calls, Wood said. The companies supply facial masks where required under state law, but VRS interpreters don’t wear them during calls because they must be able to express communicable emotions.

It can be hard for interpreters and agents working from call centers to make the transition to home workstations, especially if they live with family members also home during the pandemic, Kaika said. “It means sacrificing part of their house” or finding another fixed location, he said. It requires a dedicated room with “no interruptions from family.” Providers might be responsible for upgrading broadband service if the residential connection can’t support video, he said.