Helen Keller once said, “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing….” Since November, Julie Cantu has been living that adventure in the form of her new position as Center Manager/Trainer at Sorenson Communication’s McAllen VRS Center.
Born and raised in McAllen, Cantu graduated from McAllen Memorial High School in 1994. Two years later, she began working as a sign language interpreter in the district’s Regional School for the Deaf program. One year later, Cantu passed the state’s Board for Evaluation of Interpreters (BEI) Level 1 test, making her a certified interpreter. In 2000, Cantu became a Level 2 certified interpreter.
Life was good and Cantu enjoyed her job, her hands moving fluidly to translate the spoken words of Memorial High School teachers into American Sign Language for the school’s Deaf students and then taking their signs and finding the precise words to render the message to the teacher. Things were good but not exactly adventuresome. Cantu’s daring adventure began in May 2008 when Sorenson Communications opened a VRS (Video Relay Service) Center in McAllen.
The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, Title IV, made it mandatory for all states to create Telecommunication Relay Services (TRS) for the Deaf and hard of hearing. As a result, Deaf individuals finally had the opportunity to place telephone calls hearing people often take for granted. Now they could order a pizza, call a family member or friend, or make a doctor’s appointment. The state of Texas established Relay Texas. Deaf people in Texas connect a telephone and a Teletypewriter (TTY) and call Relay Texas. A Relay Texas operator answers the call and dials the number of the person the Deaf person is trying to reach. As that person speaks, the operator types what is being said. As the Deaf person types back, the operator voices to the hearing person.
In 1995, trials began in Austin on a new form of telecommunication for Deaf people. Although relay services opened the doors of communication that had been kept shut for so long, many in the industry knew that door could be opened much wider if Deaf people could place telephone calls in their native language, American Sign Language (ASL).
In 2000, Video Relay Service (VRS) officially became available in Texas, and two years later, the Federal Communications Commission allowed interstate VRS providers to be reimbursed using Telecommunications Relay Services funds. Through VRS, a Deaf person can now place a telephone call in ASL by placing a videophone (also known as a VP) on top of a television connected to high-speed internet.
The Deaf person then uses a remote control device to connect to a VRS provider, and the operator, who is fluent in ASL, appears on the television screen. The Deaf person signs the number he wants to call to the operator, and the operator dials the number. The Deaf person communicates through ASL, and the operator voices to the hearing person on the other end of the line. As that person speaks, the operator translates the words into ASL for the Deaf person. Videophones also allow Deaf people to call each other directly, signing back and forth to each other on their televisions without the need for a VRS interpreter.
Sorenson Communications (www. sorenson.com or www.sorensonvrs. com), founded in 2000, is a leader in the VRS industry. According to Cantu, Sorenson has 104 VRS centers in the United States, three in Canada and one in Puerto Rico. In addition to VRS, Sorenson also provides Video Remote Interpreting, allowing a Deaf person and a hearing person in the same location to connect with a remote interpreter who facilitates communication between the two, and Sorenson IP Relay (SIP Relay).
Through SIP Relay, a Deaf person types on a mobile device or personal computer and the interpreter voices what is typed, then typing what the hearing person says. All of the Sorenson services are also provided in reverse, allowing hearing people to initiate calls to Deaf people.
When Sorenson opened their VRS center in McAllen, they immediately began hiring local individuals fluent in ASL. Cantu began working for them as a freelance interpreter while still working for McAllen ISD and taking college classes.
“I was working at Sorenson part time, going to school part time, and working full time for the district while also being a wife and mother,” Cantu said.
In May 2009, Cantu made the difficult decision to leave the school district and focus on her work with Sorenson. “I miss the staff and the kids, the family I had at the school,” she said, “but I had to take advantage of this job opportunity.”
Soon thereafter, the position for Center Manager/Trainer at the McAllen VRS Center opened. Friends urged Cantu to apply. She decided to push her fear aside, and in September, she submitted her Letter of Intent. The following month, Cantu was interviewed for the position. She earned a second interview and finally a third, this one with Sorenson’s Vice President of Interpreting, Chris Wakeland. Cantu was selected for the position, and on November 16, 2009, she became the Center Manager/Trainer.
The first six weeks on the job, Cantu traveled extensively to attend training sessions, all of them part of her daring adventure.
“Sorenson really takes care of their employees,” Cantu said. “They make sure everyone gets continuing education, they prepare their employees for interpreting tests and they do a lot of mentoring.”
Taking over the reigns at the McAllen center has proven to be both challenging and rewarding.
“I now have totally different responsibilities,” Cantu said. “Now I manage reports and handle all types of situations that come up.” She also oversees all of the center’s interpreters.
Cantu recognizes that Sorenson offers a vital service to Deaf people. “We provide a means of communication between Deaf and hearing people,” she said. “Through technology, we create a bridge that closes a gap in communication. Before we had TTYs, but they were not as clear. Now videophones allow Deaf people to communicate in their own language, ASL, and give them ownership of their calls. Even people who are deaf with multiple disabilities can communicate through VRS.”
Cantu also appreciates the job opportunities available through Sorenson. “They have jobs not only for VRS interpreters,” she said, “but also for videophone installers and trainers. They have a language mentoring program for those who are not quite ready to provide the highest quality interpreting and who need a highly qualified interpreter with strong receptive and expressive skills to mentor them.” There is a great need for sign language interpreters, a need expected to rise even further in the coming years.
Sorenson has a program especially important to potential employees in the Rio Grande Valley. Sorenson VRS Trilingual Video Interpreters take calls from Deaf people and translate ASL into spoken Spanish. These specialized interpreters are invaluable to the company not only when placing calls to Spanish-speaking individuals in the United States, but also for international VRS calls to countries such as Mexico, Spain, Argentina, and Puerto-Rico.
In addition to her position as Center Manager/Trainer, Cantu continues to do trilingual interpreting for Sorenson, as well. She embraces the opportunity she has each day to learn and to grow as an interpreter.
“Every day, I pick up new signs,” she said. “Some signs are regional, signs I have never seen before. I also learn new Spanish vocabulary when interpreting.”
Cantu recognizes that continuing her work as an interpreter also helps her manage the center’s other interpreters because she is experiencing what they do each day.
While leaving a job she held for so many years was scary, Cantu has no regrets about embarking on her daring adventure.
“I love Sorenson,” she said. “They are a great company to work for. I’m really happy to be here.”