communication breakdown

311 Assailed as ‘Epic Failure’ for the Deaf Community

City Councilmember Fernando Cabrera
City Councilmember Fernando Cabrera Photo: Emil Cohen/New York City Council

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The city’s complaint and information hotline, 311, isn’t only frustrating for non-native English callers — it’s also an “epic failure” for deaf and hard-of-hearing users, a City Council member charged.

“It was not designed for people who are hard of hearing, so we have some real ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] issues here,” Councilmember Fernando Cabrera (D-The Bronx) told THE CITY.

He spoke after at a recent joint meeting of the Committees on Governmental Operations and Technology, where he raised concerns about the accessibility of 311 for those who are deaf or hard of hearing, as well as for those who do not speak English well.

The system relies on TTY, 711 relay and video relay  — all independent services, not controlled by 311 — to accommodate deaf and hard-of-hearing New Yorkers.

But some people report waiting up to 45 minutes before connecting with someone who has a way to answer their questions, Cabrera said. He noted some folks have been hung up on by operators who assumed they were prank callers.

“It’s very common,” said Nicolyn Plummer of Barrier Free Living, a nonprofit that helps domestic violence survivors who have disabilities.

A Simple Solution?

Plummer and Cabrera suggested that adding a live video option would nix the 311 problems facing the deaf, enabling people to directly communicate with an operator in sign language.

“Why can’t we do that?” Cabrera asked THE CITY.

“I think we could do better,” he added. “I don’t think it’s going to cost us a lot of money.”

A LinkNYC terminal gives people access to 311.
A LinkNYC terminal gives people access to 311. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

But Joe Morrisroe, executive director of 311, which falls under the Mayor’s Office of Operations, told the Council committees Jan. 21 that the service does not currently provide deaf users with live video chat.

As of now, deaf 311 users can use video relay — a free, independent service that provides an interpreter to exchange messages with anyone with a phone, not just 311 operators.

Others can use 711 relay — a different video service for people with speech disabilities. Another option for both deaf and hard-of-hearing people is TTY, an older relay service less commonly used that involves text messages.

Morrisroe didn’t say whether a live video option would ever be offered. He did note, however, it might be possible, given a recent overhaul of the system.

“If we are going to expand or look to do that, we now have a modern system that could be the platform to use for that,” he said during the Council meeting.

Through a spokesperson, Morrisroe said: “311 is committed to an equitable and accessible user experience. Our representatives are trained to handle calls through the video relay service and there are call options in up to 180 additional languages. We are constantly assessing our performance and technology to ensure we can serve all New Yorkers.”

‘That was Me’

Meanwhile, issues facing non-native English 311 callers persist.

Last month, THE CITY reported that callers are only given the option to press a button for one of six foreign languages — not the 10 designated languages required by law since 2017.

During the Council hearing, Morrisroe addressed THE CITY’s story, saying 311 is working to increase the number of language prompts to 10. He added that the agency plans to roll out an update in the second half of 2020.

Even when they press the button for their desired language, non-English speaking callers are still first connected to an English-speaking operator, Morrisroe conceded.

Cabrera burst into laughter upon hearing that.

“It seems so ridiculous,” he later told THE CITY. “The answer is blatantly, glaringly obvious.”

The solution, he suggested, was connecting 311 users directly to interpreters, so the callers could skip speaking to someone who might, unintentionally, cause them to hang up.

Cabrera said making sure the problem gets fixed is personal for him. Born in The Bronx and raised in Puerto Rico, he grew up speaking Spanish and avoided certain conversations in English.

“It is scary, it’s embarrassing,” Cabrera said of talking to someone who doesn’t speak your native language. “There’s a lot of shame that you go through with communicating sometimes.”

“That was me,” he added. “I know what that feels like.”

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to reflect that 311 falls under the Mayor’s Office of Operations, not the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications.

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