New technology for deaf employees proves a sign of the times

May 4, 2011
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Tim Finnigan Jacqueline McBride/PAO (Download Image)

New technology for deaf employees proves a sign of the times

Linda A Lucchetti,, 925-422-5815
In his cubicle located on the second floor of Bldg. 551 W, Tim Finnigan is using a technology that has amplified his world.

VRS or Video Relay Service, which first became publicly available in 2003, gives deaf employees like Finnigan the ability to use sign language to communicate remotely with co-workers and Lab customers. Prior to receiving the VRS at his desktop, Finnigan relied almost entirely on e-mail to communicate with colleagues and customers, which wasn't always timely. Now, he can quickly contact clients to get information, ask questions and clarify instructions about projects and assignments -- closing the communication gap between him and those who can hear.

Finnigan, who was born deaf, is a graphic designer in TID. You may have seen some of his products -- colorful, attractive posters, as well as other documents created for his customers either in the Operations and Business (O&B) Directorate or across the Lab, often using various computer applications.

For Finnigan, it's all about pleasing the customer. "I believe in providing excellent customer service and the VRS is a good tool to help me accomplish that," he said through a sign language interpreter.

The VRS equipment is provided for Finnigan's use at no cost to the Lab. To install and utilize VRS, the Lab's ICS technicians set up a two-way monitor much like a small television with a videophone and camera. With the help of a VRS provider, from his work area, Finnigan now can contact a hearing interpreter, available day and night, and use sign language to communicate his message.

That message is then relayed via phone to a third (hearing) party. The relay process takes all of a few minutes, depending on the nature of the call.

Having worked at the Lab for some 25 years, Finnigan finds VRS to be a welcome addition to his work tools. Prior to VRS, he would depend on TTY -- a text and telephone process done over a phone by typing rather than speaking. According to Finnigan, the TTY is often slow, boring and requires some patience. With the arrival of VRS, TTY is slowly becoming as antiquated as the typewriter. Finnigan was already familiar with this technology, in fact, he uses a similar personal system for his home. It just took a little bit of educating and petitioning his managers in O&B to acquire a similar system for him at work. Ken Chinn, Tim's supervisor in TID, fully supported the installation of the VRS system.

"Having the VRS really increases Tim's ability to interface with both his work group and his customers," Chinn said.

Jamie Ellison, deaf interpreting specialist at the Lab adds: "Having a VRS system at his fingertips gives Tim equal ability to communicate across the Lab, much like a hearing person does by simply picking up the phone."

Finnigan can attest to the fact that hi-tech gadgets can increase the power of daily communications -- both socially and in the workplace -- and they are not just for the hearing population. Using video relay, for example, he believes has increased his independence and productivity, making exchanges easier and friendlier for both him and his customers.

Although VRS equipment is available for general use in Bldg. 543, for now Finnigan is the only one of the Lab's eight deaf employees to have access to the equipment in his work space. Finnigan explained that cost is not the issue. Rather, many of his deaf colleagues are located in limited areas where such equipment is prohibited. Finnigan's hope is that someday soon more deaf Lab employees will be able to enjoy the same benefits from this technology that have been 'relayed' to him.

-- Linda Lucchetti, Newsline