Day in the Life: Relay Communication Assistant (CA)
Communication Assistants, otherwise known as “CAs”, bring people together – literally! These hard-working professionals put the “relay” in Relay Services, acting as the vital telephone accessibility link for deaf, hard of hearing, deaf-blind, low vision, or speech-disabled Americans. While their work is necessarily invisible, the people behind the onscreen characters stand out for their unwavering commitment, dedication and reliability.
We interviewed a long-time CA for insight into how they work… and the one thing they’ll never compromise.
Telecommunications Relay Service (TRS) is a telephone service available in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. territories for local and/or long-distance calls. Calls can be made to anywhere in the world, 24 hours a day. But who are the people behind the relayed conversations? We asked a long-time CA to answer some questions about the job, and how it all works. (Please note: Due to FCC regulations, the name and location of the interviewed CA cannot be shared.)
- How does relay service work?
It’s a very simple process for callers. Relay calls can be initiated by either a person with a hearing or speech disability or a person without such a disability. When the person with a hearing or speech disability initiates a relay call, the person uses a TTY device or other text input device to call 711 – which is the relay center and then gives a CA the number of the party he or she wants to call. The CA places an outbound traditional voice call to that person, then serves as a link for the call, relaying the text of the calling party in voice to the called party, and converting to text what the called party voices back to the calling party.
- What is the best part of being a CA?
I’ve been a relay CA since 1997. We’ve seen lots of changes in technology since then! What I love about it is first, being able to help people communication. It’s nice to have a job where I really feel like I’m making a difference every day. On the personal side, being a CA gives me excellent work/life balance. I have a low-stress, relaxed work environment and a flexible work schedule. Everyone is very friendly.
- What are the professional requirements for CAs?
The FCC sets mandatory minimum standards such as typing speed for text-based calls, because every conversation must be relayed in real time. We strive for 95% accuracy – and every CA must take grammar and spelling tests, and type at least 45 words per minute to get into training. Graduates of our training programs must type at least 60 words per minute. The training program itself is approximately 80 hours of initial classroom training, where candidates learn to process all types of relay calls. After graduation we keep up on our skills with quarterly typing tests, call skill assessments, and monthly updates and training sessions with agents, trainers and supervisors.
But the biggest requirement is we are absolutely prohibited from altering or disclosing the content of a relayed conversation. It must be relayed verbatim, unless the user specifically requests a summarization. All calls are kept strictly confidential, too. That means no recordings, transcripts or call records of any kind. When each conversation ends, so does our association with that call. Caller privacy is of utmost importance. When a new CA is hired, they sign a confidentiality agreement and take an oath to protect caller privacy. Confidentiality agreements are also re-signed annually. It’s always top of mind.
- Describe your typical workday… what is it like?
We typically work in 8-hour shifts, but the number of calls can vary. One day I may take 20 calls, other days I may only have two or three. That’s what makes being a CA so interesting, actually. There’s a lot of variety. Some people wonder what happens if a CA needs to go on break, or what happens if someone’s shift is ending just as the call is initiated. We do have procedures for those type of scenarios, but the important thing is that everything is seamless for the caller. Callers can also request things like “don’t change agents during my call” in their notes to us, and we do our best to accommodate those types of requests.
Everything we hear, we type – to the best of our ability. That includes background noise and overall tone of the conversations. Callers will see things like (sneeze), (cough), (haha laugh) or (TV in background), as needed, to add to their call experience. If the relay caller is feeling a certain emotion, CAs do our best to convey that, too. I call it “channeling my inner actor.” It’s about translating what the other person is really saying. Sometimes words alone don’t convey the tone. If the relay caller is happy, angry or sad, we want the person on the other end of the line to know that. CAs shouldn’t be robots. It’s important to us to make the call as conversational as possible.
- Do you handle emergency (911) calls? How does that work?
Yes, we are trained to handle 911 calls as well as calls to law enforcement. CAs have an emergency button that auto populates the relay caller’s information in those instances, which is the only time we are allowed to give anyone their contact information. After we reach the 911 operator or police station, the call is handled like any other relay call. We actually get a lot of non-relay 911 calls because people misdial and accidentally call 711 instead. CAs are very used to connecting people with 911 service.
- How does it feel to be such a vital communication link for people with hearing, vision and speech disabilities?
It’s wonderful! In the early days, TTY was all there was. I’ve been amazed at how far technology has come for relay calls over the past few decades. Things like internet-based relay and video relay (VRS) are very exciting.
No matter how someone uses relay services, as a CA it’s so rewarding to be part of the process. We get to be their voice. If they could do it themselves, they would. But they can’t. Being a CA is a huge responsibility. I want to represent every caller to the best of my ability – and continue to assess myself and improve, so I can serve them better. Every client has a story.