February 23, 2001
Imagine that you have a speech disability and people can't understand, or tell the 911 operator what kind of help you need? Until now, many Americans with a speech disability have faced formidable obstacles to telephone use, but a new service called Speech to Speech is overturning these barriers.
Speech to Speech Relay (STS) is a service mandated by the Federal Communications Commission that enables people with a speech disability to use their own voice or a communication device to make a phone call. All 50 states and District of Columbia are mandated to provide STS by March 1, 2001.
Commonly people who have a speech disability cannot communicate by telephone because the public, friends, or even family members cannot readily understand their speech. This is sometimes the case for people with cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, Parkinson's disease, or others who are coping with limitations in the aftermath of stroke or traumatic brain injury. Those who stutter or had a laryngectomy may also have difficulty being understood.
Some people who have a speech disability use a TTY (text telephone) to make calls, but many people are not able to employ that option. A TTY is a teletype-like device that is used by the deaf and hard-of-hearing, as well as hearing people who want to talk with another TTY user. The ability to type is a prerequisite of TTY-use. People with a speech disability often have physical disabilities and therefore may not possess the required manual dexterity to type, or to type as fast as they wish. STS offers an alternative to a TTY or to no phone communication at all.
STS will be provided by TRS, or Telecommunications Relay service, a little know service that has existed in all 50 states and District of Columbia since 1993, and is required by Title IV of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Originally created to accommodate telephone service for the deaf and hard-of-hearing, TRS permits those who communicate by a TTY and those who use a conventional telephone to communicate with each other. Because the technology of a TTY and conventional phones is not compatible, an interface is required. TRS is that interface. STS will be provided by each state's Telecommunications Relay Service. STS will be available for English to English callers as well as Spanish to Spanish callers. However, it is important to note that STS does not provide a translation function, therefore it will not provide English to Spanish service.
An STS phone call is a relayed call. That means the speech of one person is relayed to the other by a communication assistant in a three-way-call environment. In relay jargon, the person who relays the call is known as the C.A., or Communication Assistant. C.A.'s are specially trained to be able to understand the speech of a wide variety of speakers whose speech disability may range from mild to severe. The C.A. facilitates the STS call by listening to the speaker with a speech disability and then restating what that caller has said word-for-word. The term for this verbatim restating of the speech is revoicing. The role of an STS C.A. is similar to that of the ASL (American Sign Language) interpreter who serves as the go between for someone who communicates using sign language and one who does not. The interpreter's role is to verbally state what is being signed by the individual using ASL, and to sign what is being spoken by the hearing individual. At no time does the interpreter participate in the conversation. Likewise, the STS C.A. only restates what has been said by the person with a speech disability.
In United States, STS was founded by Bob Segalman, Ph.D. who has a cerebral palsy related speech disability. Segalman conceived of STS because he desired a faster, more convenient way to communicate by the phone than using a TTY. Typing is difficult for Segalman whose manual dexterity is limited. In order to establish STS in California, Segalman worked with California legislators, California's Public Utilities Commission (PUC), the California PUC's Deaf and Disabled Telecommunications Program, and California Relay Service. He argued that full telecommunications access should not be denied to people with speech disabilities. After a campaign that lasted several years, Segalman persuaded California PUC to offer STS on a trial basis. The trial was successful; California Relay Service adopted STS in June 1996.
Telecommunication providers compete on a state-by-state basis via a bidding process to win the state contract to provide TRS services. A percentage of the TRS provider's gross revenues and "contribution factor" determined by FCC are the means by which TRS costs are recovered. The states usually recover costs for these instate calls through a very small surcharge applied to telephone bills of all telephone customers in the state.
Long distance calls made by TRS consumers are not paid for by NECA, by the state, or the federal government. Consumers who make a long distance or local toll charges (LATA) are billed for the toll call. However, making a relay, like an ordinary local phone call, is free of charge unless a toll call is made. Relay calls are discounted because a TRS call takes longer than a non-TRS call. TRS callers should instruct the C.A. to bill to the caller's long distance carrier.
TRS is usually administered by a state's Public Service/Utility Commission, or by an agency within the state.
A web site dedicated to news and information about STS provides a list of each state's STS Relay toll free dial-up number. The site's URL is http://www.stsnews.com.
Phone numbers for TRS access and customer service are commonly printed in the first few pages of a phone book's white pages. The Public Service or Public Utility Commission, as well as Departments of Rehabilitation or Disability Services should be able to provide information about a state's Telecommunication Relay Service. Each state relay service has a customer service staff that educates citizens about TRS. Often the staff provides presentations to individuals, groups, businesses, and institutions. The customer service staff may also have information about state or other programs that assist individuals to obtain assistive technology that may be required to access TRS.