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One-Way Ticket to Relay Hell

May 6 2010 | by

Amtrak train

Amtrak’s website was down, and I needed to book my ticket from Stamford to Boston for the sixth annual Games for Health conference. G4H focuses on many uses for videogames and videogame technologies in health and healthcare. I’m speaking at Game Accessibility day on May 25 about games for people with physical and mental disabilities. So I decided to use TRS — telecommunications relay services for the deaf — to call Amtrak instead.

What should have been a three-minute online booking experience turned into a one-hour, agonizingly slow relay call, reminding me again why I chose to get a cochlear implant to help me hear on a regular telephone, which I can use most of the time. Sometimes I like relay because I can ensure that I’m getting the right information, and I get the automatic 15% Amtrak disability discount. It’s all about the perks, right?

It can be so frustrating for deaf people to make calls to hearing parties. In 2010, we still do not have speech-to-text technology that can translate a random person’s voice into text. That leaves the deaf community having to use TRS to make important phone calls. It would be great if Amtrak had a direct customer service line for the deaf, or a live chat window for its deaf population. However, since their website was down, I couldn’t even search for these features.

This is how the call starts: You type a phone number and a human relay operator places the call. I used Purple Communication’s excellent and professional i711 service, which lets you make Internet Protocol relay calls using chat programs like AIM. Note the time stamp of 2:32 p.m. ET.

Ten minutes later, I am still waiting for the relay operator to navigate through the automated channels to get me a live Amtrak customer service rep. I finally get Cindy, and I type some information about my travel plans, which is relayed verbally to Cindy by the relay operator. I am able to book my ticket eventually, but subtle miscommunication sets in as Cindy tries to understand my questions about ticket pick-up.

After another 20 minutes, the relay operator warns me that the Amtrak rep “sounds hurried” — this is to help convey their tone and breathing, which speaks volumes over the telephone. Cindy is obviously getting annoyed by me. This is also par for the course for deaf people using relay. I’m actually lucky she didn’t hang up.

Finally, after almost a full hour on the relay call to book a one-way railroad ride, I had my ticket. If I had done this process online, it would have taken 30 seconds. This call, like other relay calls to customer service lines, was a royal pain in the butt.

Companies should train their reps on how to more efficiently handle these types of calls — without getting frustrated at the deaf caller on the other end. If we could hear, we wouldn’t be using relay — try to remember that.


  • Michael Janger

    Great article Sue on a very serious issue that has really annoyed the deaf community, and is very much a topic of conversation in Federal Communications Commission (FCC) discussions about the relay system.

    I should point out that TRS services are very helpful for deaf and hard-of-hearing people who do not know sign language. VRS (video relay services) are used by deaf customers who use sign language. Some companies/customer service agents unfortunately still hang up on VRS users, so it points up to the need for increased awareness about VRS/TRS calls within customer service departments. The FCC is exploring the possibility of public service announcements informing people of what VRS and TRS does.

    For deaf people who also speak, there is a VCO option in both TRS and VRS for those who want to speak directly on the phone. I use this for VRS, and it cuts the lag time down to almost zero on phone calls to the point where I use it all the time for business and personal calls. VCO on TRS reduces the lag time dramatically, although not to almost zero because of the length of time it takes for TRS operators to type back to deaf callers what is being said.

    Hopefully the train ride to Boston won’t be as rocky as that phone call!

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