Telecommunications Relay Service

by Kathryn Hill on May 7, 2007

A Telecommunications Relay Service (also known as TRS, Relay Service, or IP-Relay) is a service that the deaf and hearing impaired use to make and receive phone calls to and from hearing people who do not have TTY/TDD‘s. There are many kinds of Relay calls, such as video relay (which I recently blogged about) and the most common is TTY/Voice – Voice/TTY, or text relay.

Basically, how it works is rather simple; the TTY user calls the Relay operator, who also has a TTY. (Computers and smartphones can also be used in place of a TTY with internet relay services or built-in TTY software.) The TTY user types to the operator; the operator speaks to the hearing caller and “relays” the TTY user’s typed words to them. The hearing caller responds to the operator, who types the voiced words back to the TTY user. Most relay operators (also called “CA’s,” for “communications assistant”) will also type in background sounds to help make the call more personal for the TTY user, such as (person laughing,) (person coughing,) (dog barking,) (sounds angry,) etc. I’ve freaked out hearing callers before by asking, “Are you tired?” when the operator told me that they were yawning, and one time the person I was talking to was talking about my birthday surprise with someone else in the room, and the relay operator typed it all to me. That was funny.

Here’s a diagram of a standard text relay call:

When one person finishes typing/speaking and is indicating it’s the other person’s turn to speak, they say “Go Ahead” (the typing person types “GA”) and when the call ends, both parties say/type “SK” which means “stop keying.”

If a hearing caller wishes to call a TTY user, they can do so by phoning a TRS and giving the operator the number of the TTY user they wish to call. Most internet relay services allow deaf/TTY users to subscribe to a phone number of their own, so hearing callers simply call that number and then they are automatically connected to the TRS operator and the deaf person.

TRS are paid for by telecommunications fees and are a public service. In the United States and Canada, the number 711 automatically connects one with the TRS. Relay services are available in many countries, including the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and Denmark. TRS cannot be used to call 911 emergency services. Deafies in the US can make international calls, but deafies traveling overseas cannot call US relay services and must use the relay services provided in that country, if available.

A few downsides to using relay services are that the majority of hearing people don’t understand what it is. Usually when hearing people receive a relay call for the first time, they think it is a telemarketer and they hang up, meaning the deaf user has to ask the operator to redial and then wait while the operator explains the call. New frustrations ensue if the hearing person continues to hang up. I once had to call the parts department of a local motorcycle store to get something for my motorcycle and the service counter person hung up on me three times before I gave up and had my boyfriend call them and explain to them what was going on. They finally accepted my call and apologized profusely; they felt so bad that they gave me a 10% discount.

If you are a hearing person and you receive a relay call, it will go something like this: the relay operator will ask you, “This is IP relay anon 9033. Do you know how to use relay?” If you say “no,” they will go on to explain the service to you. The basic spiel is:

You are receiving a call form a person who is using a computer. I will voice what is typed and type everything I hear on your end of the line. You may begin responding when the person pauses or when you hear the words “go ahead.” Please speak slowly and in the first person because you are talking directly to the person. When you are finished speaking and ready for a response, you may pause or say “go ahead.” Relay will begin now.

Relay calls are a bit slower than a standard telephone call, which can be a little frustrating if you are in a hurry, but I suppose it’s just something we have to live with until the technology improves.

Another negative issue with relay calls is that they are often used by spammers/scammers. Many spammers in Nigeria discovered that they could use the relay to make free phone calls to the United States, and since an operator was speaking for them, the hearing caller did not hear the Nigerian accent and had no idea they were speaking to a foreigner; they thought they were speaking with a deaf person and of course, unscrupulous scammers played on the whole “sympathize with a disabled person” angle. More information on relay scams here: Link and link.

Relay services have been around since the early 1990’s, and the service has improved over the years. There is room for growth and improvement. I hope that this post will reach a lot of hearing people so that they will understand what a relay call is, and give deaf people a chance to call them. It’s extremely frustrating for me to receive a call from a potential employer and have them hang up on me because they got connected to the operator and thought they had the wrong number, or try to call the doctor and make an appointment and have the receptionist hang up on me because they don’t understand what the phone call is about.

IP Relay
Video Relay

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Bruce MacDermott May 7, 2007 at 7:32 pm


Sounds interesting. You should try it sometime when your fingers have gotten too tired from typing email messages and you would like to “talk” to me or Dana.


Deaf Pilots May 8, 2007 at 10:21 am

how many deaf pilots in the usa?…just curious…women pilots?

Kathryn May 8, 2007 at 2:57 pm

Deaf Pilots: no idea. Perhaps you could ask the Deaf Pilots Association.

Darcy April 15, 2008 at 1:25 pm

This information is immensely helpful to a company like ours. We (Home Care Delivered, Inc.– are a national supplier of mail-order diabetes and incontinence supplies researching the most trusted and preferred means of easily and effectively enabling deaf & hearing impaired patients or their caregivers to contact us and for us to contact them should they desire to order/receive their disposable medical supplies from HCD. We want to make the process as easy for deaf & hearing impaired individuals as it is for hearing patients. Is using TRS easier, or should we purchase a TTY? Many thanks for your thoughts on this.

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