The practice and organization of sign language interpreting in video relay service: An institutional ethnography of access

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Disability studies, Qualitative, Institutional ethnography, Sign language interpreters, Video relay service, Access

Subject Categories

Social and Behavioral Sciences | Sociology


This study is an exploration of professionalization and new technology that begins in the everyday activities of sign language interpreters for the deaf. The new technology, video relay service, began in 2003. It is a telephonic service for deaf people whereby, using broadband capabilities, video cameras, and televisions, deaf people are able to use the services of a sign language interpreter to place telephone calls.

This study reports on data collected over four years. It employs a disability studies framework that challenges the pathological construction of disability and it draws upon a broad, feminist conceptualization of work, which includes the work of sign language interpreters, deaf clients, and those who organize their interactions. The data were gathered through over 1000 hours of participant observation in two video relay service centers in the United States and 22 interviews with video-relay staff working in two states (including sign language interpreters, directors and managers, and one scheduler). The study includes data from two focus groups, one in each state, with deaf people who use video relay services. Various texts used to monitor this service were also examined.

Using institutional ethnography as the approach of inquiry, this study demonstrates the multiple activities of various actors who work together to gain or provide telephone access. Starting with the physical place where video relay service occurs, the data reveal how access is created through work schedules and workstations, and how the professional work of interpreters is organized in a call-center setting. The strategies that deaf people adopt as they take advantage of video relay service are explicated, as well as the ways in which sign language interpreters experience the changing nature of their work. The various texts that regulate the service are designed to allow for a standardized product provided by interchangeable workers. As a result, service providers and the individualized services they may provide are made invisible, while their productivity is made the focus. Albeit well intentioned, these practices, at times, hinder rather than aid the creation of access.


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