The different definitions of video interpreting (VI) services in the U.S., Sweden and Norway serve as a foundation for a discussion on how a technology that at first may appear the same, serves widely different goals in different social and political contexts. In the U.S., video interpreting is defined as a telecommunication service to secure functional equivalence for all. In Sweden, the goal is to secure access to telecommunication services for disabled people. In Norway, VI is defined and organized as an extension of the public sign language interpreter service. This article gives insight into how ideology and politics shape the organization of a certain technology or service and impact the very scope and benefit of the technology itself. Further, the paper shows how the emerging VI services are interpreted, in light of the existing politcal ideals in each of the three countries, and how the services gradually also relay a certain set of rights through the way they are organised.

Digital signal processing and microprocessors have opened up the possibility of time- and cost-saving sign language interpreter services via videophones, since the interpreters no longer have to be physically present at the site where their services are requested. Basically, video interpreting (VI) is when a qualified sign language interpreter interprets conversations between sign language users and non-signers by way of a videophone and a regular phone when the two communication parties are at different locations. A growing number of countries provide VI services, but as will be shown in this article using the examples of the U.S., Sweden and Norway, the definition, scope and organization of the services can vary greatly.

At major websites for video interpreting services in the U.S., Sweden and Norway, a service that at first appears the same is defined in three different ways. Video interpreting service:

… empowers the deaf and hard-of-hearing community to communicate with both deaf and hearing family, friends or business contacts using video relay service (SorensonVRS, 2010).
… is a public service where we offer video relaying and video remote interpreting by way of sign language interpreters1 (Bildtelefoni.net, 2010).
…shall enhance the users' access to interpreters and promote equality and participation in work life. The service is a supplement to other kinds of interpreting2 (Arbeids- og velferdsetaten, 2010a).

These definitions testify to the different goals the services have, despite their similarity in the moment that the service is provided. VI is defined as a means to achieve functionally equivalent telecommunication services for all in the U.S.3 In Sweden, the service is organized as a means to increase accessibility to the telecommunication network for Deaf and hard of hearing people, while it is defined as an extension of the sign language interpreter service in Norway. The three countries are fairly similar with regard to the social status of disabled people, living conditions and telecommunication infrastructure. However, almost twenty years after the first VI trials in these three countries, VI approaches a billion dollar market in the U.S. (without long queues), is subject to heavy demand (including long queues) in Sweden, while the service is still in a phase of infancy with limited outreach and request in Norway — at least compared to the two other countries.4

This article shows how three different processes of the emerging VI service are interpreted in light of the existing ideals, and how the existing services eventually relay a certain set of rights through their current organisation.5 In the first part of the article, emphasis is on how video interpreting services emerged as objects of politics in the three countries discussed. The second part of the article discusses how the ideal and reality of video interpreting is co-produced through these services. The differences between the systems for provision of video interpreting services in the U.S., Sweden and Norway serve as a foundation for a discussion of how a technology that apparently is the same, serves widely different goals in different social and political contexts. The technological and political aspects of VI mutually shape, and are shaped by each other in a process of coproduction. American disability politics has traditionally put greater emphasis on implementing and enforcing civil rights and non-discriminating social regulations, with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as the legal spearhead. Individually-based rights to social services and economic security are to a much larger extent implemented in Sweden and Norway. The three current ways of implementing and organising the VI services in the three countries can easily be identified with, and perceived as, a consequence of these legal conditions. The definition and organization of VI services is shaped by the existing legal framework in each of the respective countries. These frameworks did not, however, initiate the services, and the implementation of VI is also a story about how technology shapes, reformulates and consolidates an existing political system. The VI service is an example of how one service that at first appears the same, has been embedded in and has been defined differently within three different political and organizational structures. This shows that the symbolic system as an ideal (in terms of legislation, including goals and so forth) and the material realities (how a service is organized and constructed) cannot be separated from each other. One implication of a critical inquiry into how the ideals are (re)produced through the implementation of a certain service, is increased insight into how ideology and politics shape the way a certain technology or service is organized, and has an impact on the very scope and benefit of the technology itself. There is an increase in social regulation of disability rights worldwide,6 including the Nordic countries, but the full consequences of the meeting between a system that has emphasised individual rights to social services and economic security, and a system of social regulations remains to be seen (Halvorsen & Hvinden, 2009).

Video Interpreting Services as Objects of Politics

There are many more aspects to VI services than the mere interpreting of a conversation or relaying a telephone call. The interpreter probably works for a company or institution, which specializes in providing VI services, and there is a series of political and strategic decisions behind both the organization of the provider and the regulations for the service and how the interpreters' salaries are financed. The VI services also include the telecommunication infrastructure, which connects the involved actors to each other, and the research, invention, and development processes that resulted in the technical equipment involved, and the continual development of new and enhanced functions. Without any one of the entities involved, the video relay service would not exist — it would not have been an object. Or, in the words of Latour: "An object cannot come into existence if the range of interests gathered around the project do not intersect" (Latour, 1993, 391). The VI service is an intersection of users, technologies and politics that have been and continue to be assembled in a process in which the actors continue to define and redefine each other and the roles they have. It is a political technology, in the sense that politics is performed through it. In other words, it can be studied as an object of politics, a concept inspired by de Vries (2007). Rather than focusing on where politics is made, de Vries (2007) proposes a focus on politics as an aim for praxis, a concept he borrows from Aristotle. Praxis is action that aims at the activities themselves, not with the intention to produce some external end. de Vries calls this aim an object of politics, which he defines as "… not a goal that is in the minds of subjects—not a matter of preferences, interests and plans—but what circulates in an association that has an appropriate constitution and is understood as an aim" (de Vries, 2007, 806). This distinction enables us to study the goal of the VI services, defined as something to be achieved (i.e. functionally equivalent telecommunication, increased accessibility or enhanced inclusion in work life through increased access to interpreters), separated from VI services as a target of action, where the primary focus is to develop and sustain the service itself. However, the conceptual distinction still retains the connection between VI services as a political goal and VI as an aim for praxis. VI is a real socio-material artifact that people relate to as an object in itself, but the ideals or goals that define and motivate the services remain something to be achieved. The different organization, classification and financial models the VI service has in different countries reveal that the VI service is not only an object in the sense that it is an intersection of assembled interests and actors. VI services are also objects of politics. Thus, what the involved actors do to sustain the VI can be viewed as a political praxis where the activity is targeted at a specific object (in this case, the video interpreting service in a particular country). As objects, VI may resemble each other in the three countries, but as objects of politics they differ considerably, as do the expected roles of the involved actors. An interpreter working for the Video Relay Service in the U.S. is defined differently than an interpreter working for the video interpreting service in Norway, even though the observable use of the service (by Deaf people) is more or less the same.

Rather than asking if the VI services are successful in achieving the rights they are constructed to secure, the analytical focus in this article is on the VI services as objects of politics. As such, I adhere to Pfaffenberger's argument that the "social anthropology of technology (…) should adopt a principle of absolute impartiality with respect to whether a given activity 'works'" (1992, 502) in order to let "the social dimensions of a particular sociotechnical activity come to the fore" (ibid.). Methodologically, this is done by establishing the VI service as the focus of the research, and the key move is to try to understand "… how things turn the public into a problem, and only then try to render more precise what is political, which procedures should be put into place, how the various assemblies can reach closure, and so on" (Latour, 2007, 815). Rather than defining the interpreters, politicians or Deaf people as the primary subjects of research, each of these groups are identified as actors involved in the web of associations that constitute VI as an object, and their roles are described in relation to this object and each other. VI is identified as an object of politics, consisting an entanglement of actors, human as well as non-human, material as well as ideological, that all together constitute this object.

Three Countries, Three Services

In the mid-1990s, development of digital infrastructure and microprocessors reached a level that allowed for relatively smooth conversations with video telephones without huge financial investments,7 and trials started in several countries. The early trials with videophones typically involved interpreters from a sign language interpreting agency, engineers from a telecommunication company, and a group of technologically savvy Deaf sign language users. The first trials established the service as an object, as they showed that the technology (videophones, infrastructure), the users (Deaf people) and the service providers (sign language interpreters) could intersect with mutual benefit. This was especially true for the interpreters and the Deaf people, since Deaf people could more easy access an interpreter and the interpreters found a new channel to provide their services, which meant they saved financial and personal resources. The trials, however, often lasted for only a few weeks or months, and had limited outreach. In order to make the service permanent (or in the language of Latour, to make the different interests intersect permanently), more work—both technological and political—had to be done. From there, three different stories about the crafting of an object of politics emerge.

The United States

The first trials with sign language interpreting via videophones took place in Texas in 1995-96. The trials showed the potential benefit of the new object, but also revealed interests and conflicts that had to be solved before a permanent and readily accessible video relay service could be established. The Texas Public Utilities Commission, that was already responsible for the text relay service8 did not readily accept that providing sign language interpreting via videophones should be their responsibility, and there were no other obvious providers of salaries to the interpreters. To gain the needed political support to become a sustainable service, the object had to be associated with an ideal that already had some political or public support. Ed Bosson, the project manager and administrator of Texas Relay, which operated the text relay service for the state of Texas, saw the existing legislation as an opportunity to define the nature of the new object and argued that: "Instead of using communications assistants to read what a relay user typed, the trials would use interpreters, who could speak what an ASL-user signed over remote video connections, and sign back all responses from the hearing party" (Strauss, 2006, 133). By associating the new service with an object that already had gathered a sustainable intersection of interests and was an established object of politics (the text relay service), Bosson utilized the potential that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provided to direct future dispositions within the telecommunications field. The ADA proposed a definition of the actors (Deaf and hard-of-hearing consumers, public regulatory agencies, and service providers), and the ideals (equivalent communication services as a civil rights issue), and provided a solution to the problems (rules to secure functionally equivalent telecommunication services for Deaf and hard of hearing people to technologies that did not exist at the time). When VI had been defined as a telecommunication service, the definition also directed which established actors had legitimate motivations to make new moves, including the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). When FCC decided to "gather general information on the feasibility, benefits, costs, and legal authority of offering these (…) innovative features" (Strauss, 2006, 134) in 1997, this was another step towards establishing (new) regulations that defined the roles and duties of the actors involved. After gathering comments, the FCC concluded that the new service could be considered a service in the meaning of the Telecommunication Act section 255, and evaluated the new service as relevant to the "functionally equivalent" measure in the Americans with Disabilities Act like Bosson and the lawyers in Texas already had done (Federal Communications Commission, 1998). When Bosson at Texas Relay, and later the FCC defined the new service as a telecommunication service, there were two inseparable effects. It stabilized the video interpreter service in the U.S. in the sense that it defined and directed the goals of the service and the roles of the involved actors. The VI service was also made an object of politics, since it became an aim for praxis, an object through which telecommunication politics is performed. The name of the service had until then been "Video Relay Interpreting," or "Video Remote Interpreting", but in 2000, the FCC explicitly demarcated the limits of their responsibility. FCC removed "interpreting" from the name of the service they were responsible for, and the video relay service (VRS) was separated from video remote interpreting (VRI).9 By this, the FCC stressed that they would only engage in regulating and reimbursing procedures for telephone relay services. This was a punctuation of the negotiations about the nature of the service that had continued since the trials, and after this announcement there was little doubt that VRS was a telecommunication service only. It was, however, not given from the beginning of the trials that the new object would become an object of telecommunication politics. The first VI trials in Sweden and Norway resembled and took place about the same time as the first trials in the U.S., but the new potential services were soon defined quite differently in those countries.


VI development in Sweden is characterized by the involvement of specialized engineers, highly conscious representatives from the sign language community (Deaf people), regional sign language agencies with a strong public foundation, and a proactive working group in the public telecom sector. On the surface, these actors apparently represent the same interests in the U.S. and Sweden. However, as with any other list or classification, comparison across cultures or different contexts may reveal that items on a list may not necessarily respond to the same questions, and may be the result of quite different modes of ordering or social ties. In Sweden, the participating engineers were part of a long-standing presence of engineer milieus and companies, which focus on alternative telecommunication solutions for disabled people. Sweden also had a well-established public sign language interpreter service, which was under constant pressure to increase the capacity and efficient use of resources. The regional public interpreter services were looking for ways to improve their sign language interpreter service and assign more tasks in a cost effective manner. This challenge was especially prevalent in Örebro, where many Deaf people settle after graduating from the national secondary schools for the Deaf in the city, and the first VI trials took place in this region. In the Bildtec trials in Örebro (1996-1998), the regional interpreter agency in the county carried out a project for the regional public administration to see if videophones could increase access to interpreters, and at the same time increase communication possibilities for Deaf and hearing impaired people in everyday life, at work, with public authorities and in general social networks in the area (Kristensen & Sand én, 1999). The trials were followed with scrutiny by the Swedish Post and Telecommunication Authority (PTS), which were responsible for overseeing the situation for disabled people in compliance with the sector responsibility principle, which permeates Swedish disability politics.10 More than in the U.S., the new object already had support from both the public interpreter agencies and the telecommunication authorities when the trials started. Another characteristic is how these two public bodies were both heavily involved from the beginning. In the U.S., the roles of the telecommunication authorities and other actors emerged with and after the first trials, and VI did not become an object of politics until it had been defined as a telecommunication issue (equivalent telecommunication as a civil right). The concerned public bodies in Sweden were much more involved and visible from the very first trials with VI in Sweden, and the service was not solely defined as a telecommunication issue. When the PTS after years of projects and trials started to procure the service, there was no sharp distinction between Video Relay Services and Video Remote Interpreting, as in the U.S. VI is defined as a telecommunication service, using videophones that had been developed in Sweden specifically for sign language users, but is operated by an established public sign language interpreter agency and is an integrated part of the interpreter service in Sweden. When the Post and Telecom Agency today procures VI as part of their sector responsibility to make telecommunication services accessible to all, VI is associated with the political goal of accessibility. FCC in the U.S. had their mandate from the Telecommunication Act and restricted their engagement to services that would secure functionally equivalent telecommunication services. PTS' legal mandate included services that increased accessibility to the telecommunication network, which also includes telecommunication technologies that may increase accessibility for disabled people at other areas of life—not only those that can be defined as functionally equivalent telecommunication services. With Norway as a third example, it is shown that the telecommunication aspects are not inevitable for establishing a sustainable VI service.


Inspiration for the first trials in Norway came mainly from the trials and projects in Sweden and the U.S. Several regional interpreter centers under the National Insurance Agency (NAV),11 Telenor (the Norwegian telecommunication incumbent), the Norwegian Association of the Deaf and a few research milieus have been involved in trials since 1997. The first trial was carried out in a county with scattered settlements, which often required interpreters to travel a full working day for only short assignments.12 The first Norwegian trials focused mainly on improved access to interpreter services, but telephone relaying was included as an option from the beginning. An early conclusion was that the service worked best for relaying telephone calls in sign language, that NAV should establish an interpreter service via videophones for Deaf workers, that the ministry of Transportations and Communication should be involved, and that such a service should be part of the Universal Services13 just like the text relay service already was (Norges Døveforbund, 2001, 2003). It seems that the potential in the new service was quite salient to the involved actors, but none of them were immediately motivated to make the required moves to establish the service on a permanent basis. The time during which the video relay service was established as an object (the trials), and before it became an object of politics, thus lasted much longer than in the U.S. and Sweden. The development of VI in Sweden, and partially also in the U.S. was nevertheless followed with scrutiny by the division of assistive technology in NAV, who were also responsible for the interpreter services in Norway.14 The bureaucrats realized early that a new video relay service would occupy sign language interpreters that currently were working for NAV. They did not want to split the sign language interpreter resources, as had happened in the U.S., partially as a consequence of the strict demarcation of the scope of VRS made by the FCC. Therefore, NAV decided to analyze the results from the previous VI trials with a focus on the possible consequences of VI for the interpreter service in Norway. The analysis commissioned by NAV concluded that the trials conducted since 1997 showed that VI services had considerable potential for increasing the efficiency of the interpreter services (less travel time and costs), and that it would increase accessibility to interpreters for spontaneous situations as well as for planned meetings. Furthermore, the report concluded that videophones and VI services contribute to furthering the qualifications of hearing impaired people at work, since they increased flexibility with regards to access to interpreters and would enhance communication with colleagues and the management at the workplace (Valestrand & Berstad, 2004).15 However, the report did not only analyze the consequences of VI for the interpreter service and the possible effects increased access to interpreter services would have for hearing impaired people. It also defined the aims of VI in Norway, and it stabilized the development of a Norwegian VI service as an interpreter issue, more or less detached from any mentions of telecommunication (access) aspects.

The step to discuss the new service in terms of interpreter resources is similar to what Bosson and Texas Relay did in the U.S. By framing the service as a telecommunication issue respective of an interpreter issue, both Texas Relay and bureaucrats in NAV directed the next steps in the development of VI. Thus, it is an example of politics that did not happen in a formal process setting, but indeed directed the future organization of VI. And it is an example of how "the settlement of public issues depends on institutional outsiders adopting and articulating those issues, and bringing them to the attention of institutions that are equipped to deal with them" (Marres, 2007, 775). It was not evident during the trials that the FCC nor NAV would be responsible for the emerging VI service, and the legal decisions that had to be made in order to make the services sustainable were a consequence of previous issue articulation by institutions that were outsiders to the formal political processes. In the U.S., the new object was linked to a telecommunication issue, the political goal was to secure functionally equivalent telecommunication services, and then the FCC became the main political regulator of the service. In Norway, NAV defined the new object as an interpreter issue. When the parliament granted the first funds to establish a VI service in Norway, the political motivation to implement the service was that it would further the qualifications of hearing impaired people at work by expanding the interpreter service with VI.

Co-production of Realities and Goals

After the trial periods, VI emerged from a mere object that was tested out in various trials, to a permanent public and politically supported service in a process of co-production of technology and politics. This process included videophones, Deaf people, interpreters, telecommunication providers and public agencies. The ideals, institutions and public bodies that later would be associated with VI were already established, but their roles in or for the new VI service had not been defined when the trials took place. This is not to say that they did not preclude certain possible ways of organizing the service, but when the trials were initiated in the mid-1990s, the service had not yet been legally or institutionally connected to the goals that motivate the services today. It is thus a shortcut to say that legal decisions on the right to functionally equivalent telecommunication services (or decision on increased accessibility and work life inclusion) caused or created the establishment of the VI services. This is because the trials were initiated before any of these goals were used to demarcate the scope and goals of the new service. As objects of politics, the VI services in the three countries are today organized in ways that confirm these goals. When the video relay service is established as an object of politics, it is not only made politically sustainable, but the service also validates the political goals that motivate the organization of it. In other words, the ideals (the goals of the service) produce the realities (how the service is organized), but since the realities confirm the ideals, the ideals are also reproduced. As such, the VI service is an example of what Jasanoff (2004) suggests that technology can do. He writes that it is "… politically sustaining, by helping societies to accommodate new knowledge and technological capabilities without tearing apart (indeed often by reaffirming) the legitimacy of existing social arrangements" (Jasanoff, 2004, 39). Reaffirming the existing social arrangements also contributes to downplaying other possible interpretations of the service, and imposes and stabilizes the identity of the actors. This resembles the process Callon (1986) describes in his study of scallop researchers, who by defining the nature of scallops and how the fishermen should relate to them also structured certain power relations. This was a process in which the researchers also became indispensable. In Sweden, it seems that the development was a bit different than in the U.S. and Norway, as it was not one major actor (like the FCC or NAV) who defined the new service. Rather, the continuous interaction between engineers and users in Sweden created a more mutual process of involvement, in the sense that several parts sought to define and interrelate the various roles that one another had in the projects. The users shared their needs with the engineers, who in turn developed solutions that influenced how the users domesticated the videophones. This process consolidated the videophone solutions that were developed in Sweden as a technical object as an "…institutionalized transaction through which elements of the actors' interests are reshaped and translated, while non-human competences are upgraded, shifted, folded or merged" (Latour, 1993, 395).

The co-production also contributed to a reduction of complexity in the new objects. The service started out as trials that aimed to create an intersection of service providers, users and technologies, where it was not clear whether it was an interpreter service or a telecommunication service or maybe both, and which roles or titles the involved actors would have. It was a conceptual hybrid (Jasanoff, 2004), but in the process of co-production, VI also became a less ambiguous category, that more easily could be dealt with in law and custom. One example of reducing complexity is the FCC's announcement that only video relay calls would be reimbursed. Another example is the definition of VI in Norway as an extension of the interpreter service, without any involvement from the telecommunication incumbent or authorities. The telecommunication aspect was excluded, and is currently not part of the public discourse or organization of the service.16

Ideals Interpreted

How the VI services were established is not only about the emergence of a new service, but also about shaping a symbolic system in which the service is conceived and consolidated as a socio-material reality. Since the formal or legal decisions to regulate, financially subsidize or establish the service had been made, the VI services are no longer an aim or something to be reached in the future, but exist as a real socio-material artifact to the involved actors. At the very moment of relaying—that is when the Deaf signing person, the interpreter and the hearing non-signer interact—the services in the three countries appear almost identical. However, the tangible practices are interpreted and conceived in a language that confirms the ideals that the service has been intended to meet. The trials that initiated an intersection between involved actors and technologies that resembled each other in the three countries have evolved into three different objects of politics.

The United States

While VRS is growing into a billion dollar industry in the U.S., Video Remote Interpreting is only provided by a few companies, and is regulated and paid for like other situations where the interpreter is physically present (community interpreting). Compared to the attention paid to Video Remote Interpreting, VRS-related issues totally dominate the American VI discourse.17 The regulations for VRS are regularly enhanced by the FCC to secure the right to functionally equivalent telecommunication services for Deaf and hearing impaired people, which is defined as:

the ability for an individual who has a hearing or speech disability to engage in communication by wire or radio with a hearing individual in a manner that is functionally equivalent to the ability of an individual who does not have a hearing or speech disability to communicate using voice communication services by wire or radio. (Federal Communications Commission, 2010)

The interpreters are there to secure this right. The videophones are, with very few exceptions, distributed to the end users by the VRS providers. Videophones are lent or given to the consumers, who only have to pay for their own broadband connection. Lending videophones that are configured to easily connect to a particular service and complicates communication with other providers' services optimizes the payback of the investment in terminals, since it creates a loyalty, albeit sometimes mainly technical, to the provider who lends the equipment. The VRS providers are reimbursed from the Telecommunication Relay Service fund,18 and the amount is generated from the time (minutes) the consumers use their services. Hence, the more clients who use the services of a particular VRS provider, the larger the amount reimbursed. The competition is directed towards Deaf consumers, and the companies compete in providing the most useful and user-friendly technology/videophones, as well as to provide the most qualified interpreters. Most providers have websites directed to their consumers, with slick welcome and advertising messages in American Sign Language (mostly by Deaf people) and English (and Spanish) text. The focus is on communication, convenient technical solutions and efficiency. The regulations have been amended to fit new technological opportunities, and the technology has undergone improvements and changes that are both a response to the demands from the FCC (interoperability between different phone models and service providers, monitoring, and regular, ten digit telephone numbers to name a few) and the consumers (user friendly interface, portability and more). Attempts to use the VRS for situations where Video Remote Interpreting or a community interpreter would have been more appropriate, is not tolerated.

The VRS system is a target of action, in the sense that it is an aim in itself. However, as an object of politics, it is also a service through which politics are performed. Being a telecommunication issue, the sign language interpreters are called "operators," and the expenses are reimbursed in "minutes." The VRS providers compete with additional services like "sign mail" (voicemail), video answering functions and inbuilt telephone lists. There are indeed other ways of viewing and organizing the same service, and the VI services in Sweden, and in particular in Norway, appear as contrasts in terms of interpreting the ideals and organizing the service.


In Sweden, the system is distinguished by a separation of the systems for provision of videophones and the service providers, which possibly is related to the relatively strong position of the videophone developers in the country. The regional medical and rehabilitation authorities are responsible for providing videophones, while the VI service is procured by the Post and Telecom Agency (PTS), and provided by a regional interpreter agency, Bildtelefoni.net in Örebro County. Due to the procurement practice, potential VI service providers do, in principle, compete against one another towards the procuring authority. However, there has only been one provider of VI services since 1997, and there are no other substantial or experienced agencies that have made any offer to provide VI services during the procurements. Bildtelefoni.net has set up a website (www.bildtelefoni.net) that is clearly directed at people using sign language as their primary language. The website is mainly informational, not aimed at recruiting more clients. There is no information about any equipment, except a FAQ answer stating that the equipment provider offers technical support. The service is open to any user with compatible equipment,19 and the distinction between VRS and VRI is not very prominent, except in statistical reports, which show that around 75-80% of the assignments can be defined as video relay calls (Tolkcentralen, 2010). The demand is growing steadily, and at peak hours there may be hour-long queues. In the U.S., the VRS providers are subject to strict response and delay rules, which are pursuant to VRS' main function—functionally equivalent telecommunication services. In Sweden, the issue is accessibility to telecommunication services, which does not automatically entail functional equivalence.20 However, since VI is not confined to secure functionally equivalent telecommunication services in Sweden, there is room for more divergent, yet still intersecting, interests from the various actors involved. To the regional authorities and public interpreter providers, VI is a tool to make their services available in sign language more accessible and efficient. To the telecommunication authority, the VRS secures access to telecommunication services (which is their responsibility, cf. the sector responsibility principle). The engineers are secured a market for their products (the videophones), and Deaf people experience that they can use the telecommunication network for communication in a verbal21 language, as well as they may request interpreter services on an ad hoc basis. As in the U.S., VI emerged in a process co-produced by technology, social knowledge and public administration, but it was not so much about reformulation of a relevant issue that provided a trajectory for politics and defined the future roles and interests of the involved actors. Rather, in Sweden VI seems to represent a target of action for more equal actors. As well, it is also an object of politics that reproduces their previous roles. The political goal (accessibility) that permeates Swedish disability politics has also been reinforced and confirmed as a goal through this process of co-production. In continuing this journey through how different politics are performed through seemingly similar services, I will now turn to Norway again. In Norway, the government and political system is the social democratic type, like Sweden (cf. Esping-Andersen, 1990), but VI is not associated with a telecommunication issue at all.


After the report that showed that VI could make the sign language interpreter service more efficient (Valestrand & Berstad, 2004), NAV included video interpreting for labor market participation in their annual proposal to the Ministry of Social and Health Affairs. The Ministry of Social and Health Affairs subsequently suggested in the state budget from 2006 that a video interpreting service should be establish for Deaf and hearing impaired people at work. The decision to only include labor market-related interpreting was a tactical move intended to motivate the parliament to grant the necessary funds to establish the service and distribute the requested end-user terminals (videophones). The bureaucrats assumed that the parliament would approve the labor-argument, since this would be pursuant with the Norwegian policy that high labor market participation is a core fundament to sustaining a high level of welfare. The parliament made a decision to establish a permanent video interpreter service to be used in labor market participation for hearing impaired persons from 2006 (Sosial- og helsedepartementet, 2005). Increased labor market participation through enhanced access to interpreters is the goal that motivates how the VI service is organized as an object of politics. References to telecommunication or accessibility in general are infinitesimal, even though 75% of the assignments are relayed telephone calls, or what the Americans would call video relay services (Hansen, 2010). The service operates on business days from 9-15, and there are no rules on answering times.22 NAV provides both the videophones and the VI service, but anyone who has purchased a compatible videophone (including mobile videophones operating on the UMTS network (3G)) may call the interpreter service. At the surface, this resembles the situation in the U.S., where the service providers also distribute videophones. NAV distributes several of the same videophones that are marketed in Sweden, but they are called equipment for video interpreting23 in the application forms. What is defined as a communication technology device in Sweden and the U.S. is defined as an instrument to access the interpreter service in Norway. Also, NAV does not guarantee that videophones other than those they have assigned will function with their video interpreter service. Only employed hearing impaired people may apply for support to install videophones at their work place, and only people under age 26 can receive a videophone for private use. NAV also provides information about the service on their website, but it takes several clicks (and knowledge about the existence of the service) to get there. The short bullet point text seems to be directed at employers, but there is a video that can be played in a new window explaining in sign language how the service works (Arbeids- og velferdsetaten, 2010b). In the video clip, the interpreter walks to the studio when a Deaf person calls to request an interpreter, a delay that is considered a violation of the VRS regulations in the U.S., but indeed confirms the Norwegian view that the VI is an extension or a supplement to the regular interpreter service.

Relayed Rights

Each VI system appears as a self-sustained organization, where the legal scope and motivation explains the organization of the service, while the organization confirms the legal and political foundations. When Deaf people discuss24 the VI service, their comments and complaints are a response to the rights that the service is organized to meet, and they "construct their social world using the social resources and structures at hand, but their activities modify the structures even as they are reproduced" (Pfaffenberger, 1992, 500). When VI is discussed in the U.S., it is foremost defined as a telecommunication issue, and regarded as such by the end-users of the service. Deaf people in the U.S. discuss VI as a telephone service, use regular telephone numbers and expect it to be accessible and operative whenever they need to place a telephone call to a non-signer.25 Swedish Deaf people talk about how comfortable it is to use sign language in telephone calls or meetings with public offices, in consultations with their physician or when they call their bank, but that the queues sometimes can be annoying. VI still has a somewhat limited outreach in Norway, and the "VI talk" among Deaf people there is not equally visible. As of early 2010, a little more than 100 people had received a videophone at their work place, and much of the talk about VI is still at an informational level, i.e. what it can be used for, how to apply for a videophone at the work place and how the interpreters work. There is, however, some frustration among those who have received a videophone at work. The main frustration is that the videophone only works with the VI service, and it is more difficult, if not sometimes technically impossible to call other videophone owners, mainly due to firewall constraints. Another frustration is the limited operating hours (9-15 on work days), which concur with the general limited access to interpreter services after work hours. Two kinds of arguments are used related to the request to extend the operation hours of the VI service. First, it is argued that the sign language interpreter service has to become more flexible, and provide more services in the evening and on weekends. Second, the limited operating hours is used as an argument to redefine the scope of the service, to make it a telecommunication service, just like the text relay service is. However, those arguments are mostly articulated by the National Association of the Deaf and a few people who have used the VI service for some time, and they do not seem to be a prevailing or a dominant issue in the Deaf population in Norway.

How people discuss and relate to the VI in each of these countries shows that the VI systems have emerged into what can be called figured worlds, which, "in their conceptual dimensions supply the contexts of meaning for actions, cultural productions, performances, disputes, for the understandings that people come to make of themselves, and for the capabilities that people develop to direct their own behavior in these worlds" (Holland, Lachicotte, Skinner, & Cain, 1998, 60). When VI (or more precisely, VRS) is defined as a means to secure the right to functionally equivalent telecommunication services, Deaf people in the U.S. also relate themselves to this right, and whether or not they experience the service as successful in meeting their needs for telecommunication services. To the VI users in Sweden, the VI is evaluated by its success (or not) to secure accessibility in sign language by way of the videophone, while the Norwegian VI system is conceived of by its ability to secure an individual right to interpreter services. Thus, rather than asking if and how the implementation of the VI service fulfills a certain political goal (cf. Pfaffenberger, 1992), the emerging VI services in three countries have been used to show how the service is shaped by and confirms the goals it is intended to meet. The VI services are objects of politics, which not only are targets of action, but also supply the actors with a context for meaning and ways that they understand themselves and their roles related to VI. The services relay rights are politically decided, whether these are an individual right to receive interpreter services or a civil right to enjoy full access to telecommunication services. The VI provision systems are also tangible intersections of actors that interpret the ideals the political rights set forth in a manner that is self-evident within each system. As long as the VI service is defined as an extension of the interpreter service, it is hardly surprising that the institution responsible for providing sign language interpreting services also runs the VI service, and it comes as no surprise that FCC regulates what is defined as a telecommunication service.

Works Cited

  • Arbeids- og velferdsetaten (2010a). Bildetolktjenesten Retrieved March, 2010, from http://www.nav.no/Helse/Hjelpemidler/Tolketjenesten/Tolketjenesten/183114.cms
  • Arbeids- og velferdsetaten (2010b). Bildetolktjenesten Retrieved November, 2010, from http://www.nav.no/Forsiden/Film/Bildetolktjenesten
  • Bildtelefoni.net (2010). Välkommen till bildtelefoni.net Retrieved March, 2010, from http://www.bildtelefoni.net/
  • Callon, M. (1986). Some elements of a sociology of translation: domestication of the scallops and the fishermen of St Brieuc Bay Power, Action and Belief. London, Boston and Henley: Routledge & Keegan Paul.
  • de Vries, G. (2007). What is Political in Sub-politics?: How Aristotle Might Help STS. Social Studies of Science, 37(5), 781-809.
  • Dopping, O. (1991). Videotelephony on 2Mbit/s for Deaf People in Their Working Lives COST 219 Issues in telecommunication and disability. Luxembourg: Directorate-General Telecommunications, Information Industries and innovation.
  • Esping-Andersen, G. (1990). The three worlds of welfare capitalism. Cambridge: Polity Press.
  • ETSI (2009). Telecommunications relay services: Background information to ES 202 975. Sophia Antipolis: European Telecommunications Standards Institute.
  • Federal Communications Commission (1998). Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, Provision of Improved Telecommunications Relay Services and Speech-to-Speech Services for Individuals with Hearing and Speech Disabilities.
  • Federal Communications Commission (2000). Order on Reconsideration.
  • Federal Communications Commission (2009). Public Notice and Proposed Rulemaking.
  • FCC Regulations for the Provision of Telecommunications Relay Services (TRS) pursuant to Title IV of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Pub. L. No. 101-336, § 401, 104 Stat.327, 366-69 (adding Section 225 to the Communications Act of 1934, as amended, 47 U.S.C. § 225. (2010).
  • Halvorsen, R., & Hvinden, B. (2009). Nordisk politikk for funksjonshemmede m øter internasjonal likebehandlingspolitikk. In J. T øssebro (Ed.), Funksjonshemming: politikk, hverdagsliv og arbeidsliv (pp. 266 s.). Oslo: Universitetsforlaget.
  • Hansen, J. (2010). In H. Haualand (Ed.) (E-mail ed.). Oslo NAV.
  • Holland, D. C., Lachicotte, W. J., Skinner, D., & Cain, C. (1998). Identity and agency in cultural worlds. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
  • Jasanoff, S. (2004). Ordering Knowledge, Ordering Society. In S. Jasanoff (Ed.), States of Knowledge. The Co-production of Science and Social Order: Routledge.
  • Kristensen, J., & Sand én, P. (1999). Bildtec - Slutrapport. Örebro: Tolkcentralen.
  • Latour, B. (1993). Ethnography of a "High-Tech" Case Technological Choices: Transformation in Material Cultures Since the Neolithic: Routledge.
  • Latour, B. (2007). Turning Around Politics: A Note on Gerard de Vries' Paper. Social Studies of Science, 37(5), 811-820.
  • Marres, N. (2007). The Issues Deserve More Credit: Pragmatist Contributions to the Study of Public Involvement in Controversy. Social Studies of Science, 37(5), 759-780.
  • Norges D øveforbund (2001). Prosjekt Videofon 1999-2000. Ålesund/Oslo Norges D øveforbund.
  • Norges D øveforbund (2003). Fjerntolking for d øve knyttet til arbeidsplass. Ålesund/Oslo Norges D øveforbund.
  • Pfaffenberger, B. (1992). Social Anthropology of Technology. Annual Review of Anthropology, 21, 491-516.
  • Samferdselsdepartementet (2004). Forskrift om elektronisk kommunikasjonsnett og elektronisk kommunikasjonstjeneste.
  • SorensonVRS (2010). What is SVRS? Retrieved March, 2010, from http://www.sorensonvrs.com/what/index.php
  • Sosial- og helsedepartementet (2005). St.prp 1 (2005-06),.
  • Strauss, K. P. (2006). A New Civil Right: Telecommunications Equality for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Americans: Gallaudet University Press.
  • Tolkcentralen (2010). Statistik f Örmedlingstj änsten per studio, infomega.se. Örebro.
  • Tolktj änsten (2009). Statistik f Örmedlingstj änsten per studio. Örebro.
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  1. Translated to English from the following Swedish: Bildtelefoni.net är en samh ällstjänst där vi erbjuder fÖrmedling och distanstolkning av samtal via teckenspråkstolk.

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  2. Translated to English from the following Norwegian: Bildetolktjenesten skal gi brukerne lettere tilgang til tolk og større mulighet for likestilling og deltagelse i arbeidslivet. Tjenesten er et supplement til annen tolking.

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  3. Discussion on video remote interpreting services (where both parties are located at the same site) is infinitesimal compared to video relay services in US, to the extent that video interpreting has become synonymous with video relay services, not video remote interpreting. See also footnote 9.

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  4. VI is a new service that still only exists in a few countries, and is developing in a few more. Also in the three countries compared in this article, the services and the regulations continue to undergo changes and revisions. The fieldwork ended in 2010, and there have been changes in all three countries since then, which are not discussed here. These changes do however not alter the main arguments in the article. There are also trials and local projects in several other countries, but few governments or telecommunication authorities have recognized this service in the sense that they are supporting or financing it at a permanent basis. In addition to the three countries mentioned, there are permanent VI services with some public regulation or support in Australia, Denmark, Finland, Germany and United Kingdom, and possibly a few more (ETSI, 2009).

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  5. The research behind this article is part of the research project "Working life, technology development and disabling barriers," which is a joint project between the two Oslo-based research institutions Fafo Institute of Labor and Social Research and the Work Research Institute (AFI-WRI). The purpose of this project was to study the interaction between the extensive development of Information and Communication Technologies and public efforts under various market conditions. The material used in this article is collected through interviews with and participant observations at arenas where politicians, lobbyists (both Deaf and hearing), researchers, engineers and bureaucrats meet, as well as literature and website studies.

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  6. The most prevailing among these new regulations is the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, with 147 signatories and 96 ratifications by the end of 2010 (United Nations, 2006).

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  7. "Huge" is a rather imprecise size. Following is a short example to put it in context. In 1989-1990, the Swedish Association of the Deaf was involved in a trial with videophones via the existing network for video conferencing. The cost for establishing a line that could be used for high quality live conversations via videophones between their offices in Leksand (located in the middle of Sweden) and Stockholm, was around 2,000,000,000 SEK (about €220,000) (Dopping, 1991).

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  8. Text telephones look like a keyboard with integrated display or an attached monitor. Users write to each other, and what one party writes is immediately shown at the other party's display. The text relay service relays calls between users of text telephones and regular phones.

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  9. "..the provision of telephone relay service utilizing sign language interpreters is reimbursable through TRS funds, consistent with the TRS Order, charges associated with (…) sign language services for in-person communications are not recoverable. In order to prevent any further confusion between these two distinct types of services, we hereby change the nomenclature for the service that is reimbursable to 'video relay services'" (Federal Communications Commission, 2000, II, 10 p 5). There are agencies that provide video remote interpreting (VRI) services, but these services are not regulated by FCC, and are financed by one of the involved parties in the conversation or meeting. VRI services are a minor part of the video interpreting market in US.

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  10. This principle emphasizes that each community or governmental sector is responsible to make their services and products accessible to people with disabilities. It is sometimes put forth as an opposition to the view that disability is a charity or social issue.

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  11. The National Insurance Agency is responsible for implementing, regulating and developing a broad range of economical benefits and social/welfare rights to the Norwegian population. They are also responsible for, and have a de facto monopoly in providing and distributing assistive technology and services, including sign language interpreters.

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  12. Contrary to the trials in Sweden, which were initiated in a region with a high density of Deaf people, the first trials in Norway were placed in a region with a scattered Deaf community.

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  13. Typical telecommunication Universal Service obligation services include networks for emergency preparedness, providing telecommunication access in areas with scarce population and services for disabled people.

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  14. Access to sign language interpreting services is a right for Deaf persons, pursuant to regulations in the National Insurance Act. With the exception of sign language interpreter services in hospitals, schools and for religious services, all sign language interpreter assignments are financed by the National Insurance Scheme.

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  15. Translated to English from the following Norwegian: Bildetelefon og bildetolking bidrar til å fremme h ørselshemmedes kvalifikasjoner i jobben og gi st ørre fleksibilitet i forhold til kolleger og ledelse på arbeidsplassen (Valestrand & Berstad, 2004).

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  16. The Norwegian Telecommunication regulation had (and has) similar statements of future possibilities (Samferdselsdepartementet, 2004) as the Americans with Disabilities Act and the directive to the Swedish Post and Telecom Authority, which overtly states that inclusion of videophone services should be considered in the future telecommunication services to disabled people. This statement is not mentioned in any of the current public document or discourse about VI in Norway.

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  17. When discussing the services in a comparative manner with various VI actors in US, Sweden and Norway, the different and highly relative relevance of telecommunication vs. interpreting aspects was a source of confusion. Hence — the repeated misunderstandings and calls for clarifications and explanations during research for this paper also became an invaluable source of information, as the cultural differences related to VI became very explicit in those conversations.

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  18. The fund is financed through a fee that is added to every telecommunication client's telephone bill, not only those who use the relay services. In 2009, the contribution factor was 0.01137% for every telephone bill (Federal Communications Commission, 2009).

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  19. Two of the most widespread videophones (Allan EC and MMX) are both soft phones developed in Sweden specifically for people who communicate in sign language. There are no official numbers on the total number of purchased, assigned or prescribed videophones in Sweden, but Bildtelefoni.net registered 2,867 individual callers in 2008, a growth from 2,570 in 2006 (Tolktj änsten, 2009).

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  20. There are rules for maximum response time in the procurement documents, but the time from when the caller is connected to the service to when a sign language interpreter is actually available, is in practice much longer, especially at peak hours.

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  21. "Verbal" as in opposition to "written" language, and is not referring to visual vs. auditive modality.

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  22. Given the current low number of people who have obtained or received a videophone, such restrictions are probably superfluous.

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  23. Utstyr for bildetolking

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  24. The accounts of "people talk" about the VI services in these three countries are foremost registered at settings where the VI overtly has been discussed, mostly at fairs including exhibition booths by VI providers. As observations of use of VI from peoples' homes only could be done if people used it when visited, public events (mostly fairs or larger meetings/seminars) where VI providers informed about their services to their primary target group, are the major source of thoughts and considerations regarding VI and videophones from Deaf people.

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  25. In a conversation with the Vice President of Purple, a VRS provider in the US, he assumed that around 80% of all videophone calls were direct calls between two or more videophones, and only 20% involved a VRS operator.

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