Instead, on the shelf below, green lights flash. Waiters scurry by. A few paces away, a cook with a big wooden paddle shoves pizzas into a bulbous oven. The lights flash again, and Melody Stein picks up.
"Hi, this is Melody from Mozzeria," she says. "OK, sure thing. What would you like to order?"
Melody is deaf. As are the waiters and the cooks. Any one of them can communicate with a hearing person over the phone.
Through a video relay service, deaf and hearing people can communicate seamlessly.
Call Mozzeria and the system will route you, the hearing person, to an interpreter at a "video relay service." The interpreter listens to what you say and signs it to Melody, who's watching on the restaurant's iPad. Then the interpreter speaks Melody's response back to you. This continues, back and forth, until you've placed your order or made your reservation. And if you don't find that to be marvelous, then, don't read the rest of this article.
The impact of video relay services, or VRS, has been titanic for businesses owned and operated by the deaf. VRS has grown into a half-billion-dollar-a-year industry as more and more deaf Americans gain access to fast mobile data and sophisticated phones. It's changed forever not only the way that Mozzeria and other deaf-run restaurants do business but how the deaf navigate a world made for the hearing. In fact, VRS ranks among the biggest-ever leaps in deaf communication with the hearing. And it's all free, thanks to you.
Two Worlds Become One. Way back when, before smartphones or the internet, deaf-run businesses relied on fax machines to take orders. (Consider how much you loathe fax machines. Now imagine that being your way of life.) The deaf could also use a teletypewriter, or TTY, which transmitted text as a printout or on a screen—a good way for them to communicate with each other, but not exactly widely adopted among the hearing, and the process was slow and laborious.
Then along come smartphones and tablets, forever transforming the way the deaf communicate. Through a video relay service, the deaf and hearing can communicate seamlessly with only a slight delay between replies. "Now I have the ability to sign completely with an interpreter who's able to speak what I'm saying and voice for me," says Russ Stein, who co-owns Mozzeria with wife Melody. "It feels like I'm in the same room with another person."
The system is so efficient that it can fool customers into thinking they're making a reservation with a hearing person. Until that is, they show up, when they meet the host and get a response in sign language. "They say, ‘How do you talk to us on the phone if you're deaf?'" Melody says.
And this isn't just a business-hours service. The FCC mandates that video relay services make themselves available to the deaf community 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And they have to work efficiently: the services must answer at least 80 percent of calls within 120 seconds. That kind of reach doesn't come cheap, so the FCC requires that telecoms pay into a fund to finance companies that provide VRS (check your phone bill and you might see a small charge).
Convo is the company that provides VRS to Mozzeria. Wayne Betts, Jr., founder of Convo and a member of the deaf community himself, says that sometimes it isn't just the signing but how good the interpreter is with signing emotion to the deaf. If a caller has a problem, the better interpreters can convey the tone of the message as well as its actual word content. That's why only 2 in 10 applicants make it as Convo interpreters. It's hard to realize how many simple communication elements are embodied in audible speech. "With video relay service, I feel that I am on equal footing," says Betts.
This new VRS technology has helped Russ and Melody Stein's little pizzeria get a foothold in the crowded San Francisco restaurant scene. Two worlds are coming together, one pie at a time.