Swift Translation

Videoconferencing technology enables on-demand, round-the-clock interpreting services for the hearing-impaired.

Kay Chiodo lays out a frightening scenario: A child is missing in an airport, and his mother, who is deaf, is frantically looking for him.

When the mother rushes to an airline employee for help, there's a communication breakdown. The employee doesn't know sign language, so the anxious mother writes a cryptic message that reads like it's been translated from a foreign language, something like "boy, 6, no see."

Precious minutes slip away.

For Chiodo, that's unacceptable.

"It's a real challenge getting interpreters from one place to another in a timely manner, and sometimes a person's life depends on it," she says.

So Chiodo, CEO of Deaf Link Inc., turned to technology to address that problem. Deaf Link uses videoconferencing technology and a call center environment to instantly make American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters available to people who need help communicating. The company was a 2008 Computerworld Honors winner in the category of business and related services.

Answering a Need

Through this service, deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals can communicate with employees at organizations of all types, without delays or scheduling requirements.

"Can you imagine going to the hospital with your child who is sick and not knowing what the doctor says, or not being able to tell the doctor your child is allergic to penicillin?" Chiodo asks. "Those kinds of things can be changed."

Olivia Ramirez, a patient advocate at Christus Santa Rosa Health Care, also in San Antonio, agrees. "Deaf Link has really saved a lot of time, especially for our doctors in the emergency room," she says. Ramirez adds that getting ASL interpreters to a site can sometimes take up to an hour.

Christus Santa Rosa Health Care also has seen its costs drop dramatically with Deaf Link. Now the hospital doesn't have to pay translators for the time they spend traveling to the site or the time they spend waiting to meet with patients and doctors. The average monthly cost for Deaf Link is about $1,400; before it started using the service, the hospital was spending about $3,200 for in-person ASL translators.

The organization initially borrowed Deaf Link's equipment to use in a pilot test that began in late 2007. It felt the test was a success, and Ramirez says the hospital is now spending about $17,000 to purchase and install two videoconferencing stations of its own.

There's a great need for such services. Some 30 million people in the U.S. are deaf or hard of hearing, and many of them use ASL to communicate. People who can hear are aware of sign language, but many don't realize that ASL is considered a foreign language; it has no roots in English and uses no English syntax. According to Gallaudet University, the majority of deaf individuals have a second- to third-grade comprehension of English. That's why the hypothetical mother in the airport would write something like "boy, 6, no see" -- it's what she would sign.

Chiodo learned to sign as a child, taught by deaf children who lived in a group home near where she grew up in Arkansas. She put her ASL skills to professional use later in life, when in 1989 she worked as a job placement specialist at the Southwest Center for the Hearing Impaired in San Antonio.

Soon after that, Chiodo started Vital Signs Inc., which provided in-person, on-site ASL translation services for businesses, health care providers and other organizations. Demand for her services received a boost with the 1990 passage of the federal Americans With Disabilities Act, which mandates equal access for individuals with disabilities.

But the growing demand for ASL interpreters revealed a weakness in Chiodo's business model: Interpreters often spent more time traveling to appointments than they spent translating.

Inspiration struck in the late 1990s, when she saw a demonstration for a relay service in which deaf callers used the Internet to reach ASL interpreters who then placed phone calls on their behalf.

"I saw that and said, 'We're going to do this. It will be like a live interpreter standing in the room, except we'll be in a call center,' " Chiodo recalls.

To start her company, she invested roughly $1.5 million in videoconferencing equipment, broadband Internet service and an 8,500-square-foot communications center that includes soundproof cubicles.

The idea seems straightforward, but Chiodo faced obstacles -- technical, financial and cultural -- from the start.

Videoconferencing equipment at that time was prohibitively expensive, and many office locations didn't have access to high-speed bandwidth, says Deaf Link COO Michela Steele. Because slightly different hand motions can mean different words in ASL, it was crucial to have broadband connections to support superior video performance.

"On almost every front, we fought to get the software and Internet lines we needed," Steele says. She recalls ruling out potential office space because it couldn't get DSL service. "At that time, getting broadband was a nightmare," she says.

But then came the tech boom. The cost of videoconferencing equipment came down and the quality went up. Cable and DSL expanded their reaches. The timing was right, Steele says.

Chiodo and Steele tested equipment from numerous vendors and initially went with Miami-based Aethra Inc., partly because, with Aethra's equipment, Deaf Link could use its own server and didn't have to pay a monthly hosting fee.

Other challenges remained, however. Deaf Link's business plan required a call-center-type environment, where organizations could access ASL interpreters and be billed only for the time they used. So the fledgling company needed applications that would route and queue calls as well as track the minutes used.

Steele says the company also needed firewall transversal units and security and encryption applications, as mandated by the privacy requirements set by HIPAA, the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996.

"There were no applications that could do everything we wanted," says Tyler Chiodo, Deaf Link's technology director (and Kay Chiodo's son). He says he customized applications, putting together multiple pieces from different sources over "many hours and frustrating nights" to develop a system to handle the job.

Challenges on Both Sides

Meanwhile, client companies had similar struggles, Steele says. Many didn't have the in-house technical expertise to install and support videoconferencing equipment. But time improved that situation; as videoconferencing grew more popular, more companies hired employees with expertise in that area.

Abner Germanow, an analyst at research firm IDC, says Deaf Link is "on the leading edge of thinking about this notion of how to get experts to interact with a lot more people."

Germanow says organizations are just beginning to explore how they can use videoconferencing to solve business problems, rather than just using it to hold meetings for people in different locations. He cites a collaborative of California hospitals that uses videoconferencing for translation services as an example of what's ahead.

"Those examples of new business models based on videoconferencing are very much in their infancy today," he adds.

Several recent trends have made the timing right for these types of uses to take off, Germanow says. The technology has improved, prices have come down, and consumers have become increasingly comfortable with it.

"Now you have people thinking about solving business problems that can't be solved otherwise," he says. "We're right at the cusp of this. There are a lot of people who are thinking about it, and if they're not thinking about it, they should be."

Since entering what's known as the video remote interpreting (VRI) market, Chiodo has seen an increase in the types of organizations requesting services. For example, banks, which are more likely to need translation services on the spot, have signed on as clients. Government agencies turned to Deaf Link to communicate with deaf evacuees from Louisiana following Hurricane Katrina. And in 2007, San Antonio International Airport became the first airport in the nation to offer VRI services for communicating with deaf people.

Today, Deaf Link has more than 80 clients -- a mix of health care providers, nonprofit organizations, government agencies and businesses from multiple states. These clients can reach ASL interpreters around the clock, with no additional fees for holidays, weekends or off-hours, Chiodo says.

Deaf Link now uses equipment from Norway-based Tandberg ASA. Deaf Link officials say they picked Tandberg because of its user-friendly interface, firewall transversal offerings and support services. (Deaf Link clients can use whatever videoconferencing equipment they choose.)

In addition to its VRI services, Deaf Link has prerecorded interpreting offerings. It also developed a proprietary Internet-based program called the Accessible Hazard Alert System to transmit emergency announcements from the Texas Department of Public Safety to help ensure that people with hearing disabilities receive such warnings. The alerts can be sent in various formats, such as videos of messages in ASL to be broadcast on TV or text-based notes to individual Braille-capable devices. AHAS was first used for Hurricane Dolly, which hit Texas on Aug. 22, 2008; it was the first emergency in which a state could deliver the same information to everyone at the same time.

Future innovations are in the works. Tyler Chiodo says Deaf Link is looking at ways to provide its services on mobile devices such as tablet PCs. And Kay Chiodo says the company has plans for more growth.

"We were providing access before, but technology has advanced it even further," she says. And that's important, she adds, "because I just don't believe that doors should be closed. Period."

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