3/21/2023 | By Kari Smith

Although technology is constantly evolving, TRS (Telecommunications Relay Service) is still a viable communications option for Americans in all 50 states and all US territories who are deaf, hard of hearing, deafblind, or have speech disabilities. Many forms of TRS are accessible by calling 711 anywhere in the country.

How do Telecommunications Relay Service work?

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is responsible for providing Telecommunications Relay Service for individuals who need them. The FCC governs and sets mandatory standards for providers. Under the minimum standards, most relay services must be available 24/7, must answer within a certain number of seconds, must maintain confidentiality of call contents, and may not keep a record of any conversation.

TRS providers are staffed with Communication Assistants (CAs) who help provide relay services by either talking or typing. Certain CAs are specially trained to understand callers who have speech disorders, or to speak American Sign Language (ASL).

There are many services available to users, based on individual needs and available equipment.

TTY / Text-To-Voice

A Communication Assistant (CA) in a relay center receives a call from a TTY (Teletypewriter or Text Telephone) user. The caller provides the number they wish to call, and the CA makes the call to the other party, relaying the spoken conversation between the two by typing out what the called person says, and speaking what the caller says.

Voice Carry Over and Hearing Carry Over

Some hearing-impaired callers may chose to speak in their own voice to the called party, but receive replies in text form from the CA. Conversely, some callers with speech impairments but no hearing deficit may want to listen directly to the called party, but type their responses on the TTY device.

Speech-to-Speech Relay Service

This type of relay service is used by callers with speech disabilities. No typing, TTY device, or special equipment is needed for this service – the CA only listens to the caller and repeats their words in an understandable way to the called party.

The following relay services are NOT available by dialing 711.

Captioned Telephone Service

Hard of hearing older man looking at screen of smart phone. For article on Telecommunications Relay Services

Much like closed captioning on a television screen, this services uses a telephone equipped with a text screen to display captions of what the called party is saying. In this case, instead of a CA typing, they simply repeat aloud what the called party says, and speech recognition software transcribes the words to text captions, which the caller reads. Spanish-to-Spanish Captioned Telephone services are often available as well. An internet search of “Captioned Telephone Service” plus your state’s name will result in CTS options available in your state.

For example, in my home state, Virginia Relay Captioned Telephone Service is provided free by Virginia Relay: CapTel® through the Virginia Department for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (VDDHH). As mentioned above, this service is not available by dialing 711; a caller must dial a toll-free CTS number before connecting to their called party.

IP Captioned Telephone Service and Internet Protocol Relay Service

Internet Protocol (IP) Captioned Telephone Service was approved by the FCC in 2007 and uses the internet rather than phone service to provide links and captions between the caller and the CA. The caller can listen to and read the captioned response in real-time. Internet Protocol Relay Service also uses the internet to handle typical TTY-based TRS calls, but with a computer or internet-connected device such as a phone or tablet to communicate with the CA instead of a TTY device. The captioning services are free to the user and paid for through a program managed by the FCC.

Related: Cochlear implants vs. hearing aids

Video Relay Service (VRS)

VRS is an internet-based relay service primarily for deaf persons using American Sign Language. The caller communicates with the CA via sign language, and then the CA speaks the caller’s words to the called party. When the called party responds, the CA signs their response back to the caller. As of 2006, FCC guidelines mandate that TRS providers that do offer VRS (not all do) must offer it 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. A list of providers can be found here.

Note that in an emergency, the FCC indicates that TTY users should directly call 911, rather than using TTY-based relay services through 711. This ensures that people with disabilities have direct and equal access to emergency services.

Though technologies continue to advance, many Americans with hearing, speech, or vision disabilities depend on these vital communications services. For more information on using 711 for TTY-based services, click here.

Kari Smith

Kari Smith is a frequent contributor to Seniors Guide, helping to keep those in the senior industry informed and up-to-date. She's a Virginia native whose love of writing began as a songwriter recording her own music. In addition to teaching music and performing in the Richmond area, Kari also enjoys riding horses and farming.

Kari Smith