Using Relay Services for the Deaf

Convenient Calling 24/7

If you're deaf or hard of hearing, you may know that not too long ago, making a simple phone call was a real challenge. If you were lucky, you lived in an area with volunteer relay services. But it could take hours to make a phone call because of the long line of callers ahead of you. When no relay service for the deaf was available, you had to rely on the kindness of hearing friends or relatives.

That changed when the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), passed in 1990, mandated the establishment of the nationwide telecommunications relay service (TRS) for people with hearing or speech disabilities. The TRS is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

Today, this relay service is available in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. territories for both local and long-distance calls. The service is free to its users, with costs covered by either a state or a federal funding source. 

Man looking at computer
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There are two types of relay services: traditional and broadband, high-speed video. Traditional relay services have all communication in text only, through a teletypewriter (TTY) or via the internet. A video relay service uses a videophone or a webcam and a sign language interpreter. Almost all relay services involve an operator, called a communications assistant, who passes the call content back and forth between the callers.

Accessing Relay Services

Using a regular telephone, you can access a traditional relay service 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, by dialing either 711 or a toll-free number. (The FCC has a fact sheet on using 711 to contact a relay service.) Every state has its own relay service.

An Internet relay service can be accessed via a relay service website or instant messaging. Video relays are accessed by contacting the relay service via a videophone such as a VP (Sorenson) or the Ojo (Snap!VRS). Some cell phones may have free software installed for contacting relay services without using instant messaging.

Using Relay Services

Internet text relay services offer secure online communication. Most have features such as the ability to save a conversation as an HTML file and the ability to adjust font size and background or text color. Web-based services may offer separate chat boxes for the caller and the communications assistant, plus emoticons. Instant message relay services also allow instant message conversations to be saved. Spanish translation is available as well.

Some deaf people, particularly skilled American Sign Language (ASL) users, say that making relay calls via sign language video relay services is quicker and more effective.


A number of companies offer relay services. The ones listed below are examples, not a comprehensive list.

Most relay services offer multiple options (web, traditional, and video). 

  • Instant Messaging (AIM = AOL Instant Messaging)
    i711 relay -- AIM: i711relay
  • Hamilton Relay -- AIM: ThatsHamilton
  • Hawk Relay -- AIM: HawkRelay
  • Hands On -- AIM: hovrsIM
  • IP Relay -- AIM: My IP Relay
  • Sorenson Relay -- AIM: Siprelay
  • Sprint Relay: AIM -- SprintIP
  • Video relay
    Communication Services for the Deaf
  • Purple Video Relay Services
  • Snap!VRS
  • Sorenson Video Relay Services
  • Sprint
  • Web-based
  • Hamilton Relay
  • IP-Relay
  • Sprint IP Relay

There's also a Federal Video Relay Service, for federal employees (FedRelay).

Some wireless relay services (from Sprint Relay, IP Relay, and Hamilton Relay) do not use instant messaging. Instead, an application is downloaded or installed on a cell phone.

Telephone Numbers for Users

The FCC requires relay service providers to assign their deaf and hard-of-hearing users a single universal 10-digit telephone number. Having normal telephone numbers has proven extremely useful to deaf people, as it allows hearing people to call deaf people directly. It has aided deaf job seekers by enabling them to list an actual phone number on their resumes. (Before the FCC requirement was issued, some relay service providers had been providing their users with personal telephone numbers or 800 numbers.)

Relay Conference Captioning

Relay conference captioning is a service that allows deaf people to participate in conference calls, reducing the need for interpreters in meetings. There is a Federal Relay Conference Captioning service and a commercial one, available through Sprint Relay.

Captioned Telephone (CapTel) Service

People who have some residual hearing and can speak clearly can use a captioned telephone. It is not suitable for people who are deaf.

The Captioned Telephone (CapTel) service is similar to a voice-carryover relay service (a type of relay that lets you use your voice to talk and use the relay for what you cannot hear). CapTel uses a special telephone with a text screen to display near-instant print captions of what the caller is saying. The CapTel user is able to hear and read the words at the same time.

Related Issues

Lack of Public Awareness. One problem facing users of relay services for the deaf is that the hearing public is largely unaware of the existence of relay services. The services have tried to increase awareness through public service announcements and commercials. However, it is still common for a hearing person to hang up on a deaf relay user after hearing only a few words. Why? Because they think the caller is trying to sell something.

The deaf community pays a price when this happens.

Relay communications assistants usually give a brief "explaining the relay" speech to hearing people at the start of a call, and this is what can sound like a sales pitch. One solution is to instruct the communications assistant, prior to making a call, not to announce it as a relay service call.

Because of the more direct nature of a sign language relay call, sign language video relay services are said to minimize the "hangup" problem.

Criminal Abuse of Relay Services. Relay services have also been abused by criminals, who've used relay services to get goods delivered without actually paying for them. This has made some merchants hesitant to accept relayed credit card orders.

9 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Association of the Deaf. Relay services.

  2. Federal Communications Commission. 711 for TTY-based telecommunications relay service.

  3. Federal Communications Commission. IP relay service.

  4. Federal Communications Commission. Telecommunications relay services directory.

  5. Federal Communications Commission. Internet-based TRS providers.

  6. Federal Relay. Video relay service.

  7. CapTel. What is CapTel captioned telephone?

  8. Federal Communications Commission. Telecommunications Relay Service - TRS.

  9. Federal Communications Commission. IP relay fraud.

Additional Reading

By Jamie Berke
 Jamie Berke is a deafness and hard of hearing expert.