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Handling Relay-Operator Calls (It's Not As Complicated As You Think)

A man with hearing impairment notified us that he had called a church and then Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) headquarters using a relay operator. He informed us that both the church and headquarters hung up on him. Unfortunately, we have not been able to apologize directly to him, but we can use the experience to inspire us to provide information to staff so that we don't do it again.

People who are hearing (or speech) impaired use relay-operators to make phone calls to people who use regular (voice) phones. Making a relay-operator assisted call is simple. In the front pages of every phone book, you'll find your state Telecommunications Relay Service (TRS) phone number, or go to this Federal Communications Commission TRS Directory which lists the 1-800 phone numbers for relay services in every state. When you dial the number, the operator will help you if you are unsure about how to use the service.

If you receive a call from a person who identifies him/herself as a relay operator, you will know you are getting a call from a person who is hearing (or speech) impaired. The relay operator will ask you if you have used a relay operator before and ask whether you need instructions.

If the call has come through your receptionist/switchboard and has been transferred to you (thus making you the second person the operator has spoken with), the relay operator may or may not ask again whether you need instructions.

Using a relay operator is like using an interpreter. You speak through the operator, not to the operator. In other words you do not say "Tell Mr. Jones I am happy to speak to him." Instead, you say "Mr. Jones I am happy to speak to you."

SUGGESTION: If a relay call comes directly to you and you need to transfer the call to someone else, make sure you give the deaf person a direct number to call, and tell them that in the event they are disconnected during the transfer, they can call the person directly. It seems that we lose calls during the transfer process, probably because of the silence and because of unfamiliarity. Most people who make relay calls do so on via the internet, and these calls are free of charge, so asking the person to make another call will not be a financial burden.

Here's a script of a conversation:

DP (Dick Peters, who is deaf): [contacts the relay service by typing their number on keyboard (TTY or computer)]

RO (Relay operator): [typing] "What number are you calling? GA" (stands for Go Ahead, means that person finished typing, is waiting for response).

DP: [typing] "617-742-2100"

RO: [connects to UUA]

UUA: [speaking] "Good morning this is the Unitarian..."

RO: [speaking] "I have a relay call for you from Mr. Peters. Have you ever used a relay operator before? Do you need instructions?"

UUA: [speaking] "No thank you. Good morning Mr. Peters, how may I help you? Go ahead."

RO: [typing] "Good morning Mr. Peters, how may I help you? GA."

Important—while the operator is typing, you may or may not hear keyboard clicking—there may be a period of silence while the operator is typing and waiting for Mr. Peters to type his next sentences.

DP: [typing] "I am calling to ask about a religious education curriculum I've read about. It's something that I read about in a newspaper article. GA."

RO: [speaking] "I am calling to ask about, etc... Go ahead."

UU: [speaking] "You want to speak to someone in Lifespan Faith Development. Please call them directly. Here is their number.... 617-etc... Is there anything else I can help you with? Go ahead."

RO: [typing] "You want to speak to someone... etc."

We suspect breakdowns in communication occur when calls are transferred. It is a better strategy to ask the caller to call the person they want to talk to directly.