National Association of the Deaf

Relay Services



Imagine asking your neighbors to order a pizza for you, call your doctor, or tell your boss that you are sick today. Nationwide relay services – which connect telephone users with people who are deaf or hard of hearing – were not required until the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990. The NAD played an important role in obtaining this provision during the drafting of the ADA. The NAD continues to work hard to ensure full access to the telephone system – addressing issues such as quality, funding, technology development and research, and universal access.

The ADA defines relay services as telephone services that enable people who are deaf or hard of hearing, or who have a speech impairment, to communicate with a person who can hear in a manner that is “functionally equivalent” to the ability of an individual without a disability to communicate by telephone.

The ADA required the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to develop and enforce relay service regulations that encourage “the use of existing technology and do not discourage or impair the development of improved technology.” The FCC has used this directive as a means to improve relay services and foster the development of new technology so relay users are not left behind as these technological advancements occur.

Today, deaf and hard of hearing individuals can choose from many different relay service providers and a wide range of relay services:

  • TTY relay services, the original and now traditional relay service, which can be reached by anyone by dialing 711 from a telephone or TTY1
  • Voice Carry Over (VCO) for people who are deaf or hard of hearing who communicate by speaking
  • Hearing Carry Over (HCO) for people with a speech disability who use a TTY
  • Speech-to-Speech (STS) relay service for people with a speech disability who use a telephone
  • Non-English language relay services, such as Spanish-to-Spanish
  • Captioned Telephone Service (CTS) for people with a special “captioned telephone” that enables them to communicate by speaking, listen to what they can hear, and read what the other person is saying through captions displayed on the “captioned telephone”
  • Video Relay Service (VRS), an Internet-based system for people with video conferencing equipment or videophones who communicate in American Sign Language
  • Internet Protocol Relay (IP Relay) service, an Internet-based system for people with a computer or other web-enabled device who communicate using text
  • Internet Protocol Captioned Telephone Service (IP CTS), an Internet-based system that enables people to communicate by speaking and listening to what they can hear over a telephone, and read what the other person is saying through captions displayed on a computer or other web-enabled device

For more information about these forms of relay services, see the FCC factsheet at http://www.fcc.gov/cgb/consumerfacts/trs.html.

Relay services are provided at no cost (free) to all relay service users. State relay service programs provide and pay for some relay services, such as relay services used on in-state calls made through TTY, CTS and STS. The FCC oversees the Interstate Telecommunications Relay Fund which pays for other relay services, such as relay services used on interstate calls made through TTY, CTS and STS, as well as on all calls made through IP Relay, VRS, and IP CTS.

The variety of relay services available makes it possible for people who are deaf or hard of hearing to select the service that works best for them. However, this variety has also created an unexpected barrier to communication between people who are deaf or hard of hearing or who have a speech impairment. The ADA defines relay services as enabling communication with a person who can hear. Today, the FCC will not authorize payment for the use of more than one relay service that may be needed to complete a call. For example, more than one relay service is necessary for a TTY user to communicate with a VRS user, or for a VRS user to communicate with a CTS user. When more than one relay service is necessary to complete a call, these relay services should be, but may not be provided because they are not authorized by the FCC.

This limitation is addressed in the relay service section of the Coalition of Organizations for Accessible Technology (COAT) proposed legislation called the “Twenty-first Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act.” That legislation, when passed, will clarify that relay services are intended to ensure that people who have a hearing or speech disability can use relay services to engage in functionally equivalent telephone communication with all other people, not just people who can hear. In addition, several relay service providers filed a Petition2 asking the FCC to clarify that calls requiring more than one relay service are eligible for reimbursement through the Interstate Telecommunications Relay Service Fund.

  1. 711 dialing is available nationwide to access non-Internet-based relay services such as TTY relay services, STS relay services, and VCO TTY, and HCO TTY relay services. For more information about 711, see www.fcc.gov/cgb/consumerfacts/711.html.
  2. In the Matter of Telecommunications Relay Services and Speech-to-Speech Services for Individuals with Hearing and Speech Disabilities, Petition for Declaratory Ruling, filed by AT&T, CAC, CSDVRS, LLC, GoAmerica, Inc., Lifelinks, LLC, Snap Telecommunications, Inc., Sorenson Communications, Inc., Sprint Nextel Corporation, and Viable Inc., CG Docket No. 03-123 (filed January 28, 2009).