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Voice Carry Over (VCO) is a type of telephone relay service. It is designed primarily for Deaf and Hard of Hearing people who are able to speak clearly. During a VCO relay call, the Deaf or HoH person speaks directly to the hearing person. The hearing person, however, speaks to a communications assistant (CA)1 who then types exactly what was said and it appears on the Deaf/HoH person's TTY or VCO phone.

VCO calls are half-duplex. This means only one party can speak at a time. When a party is finished speaking, they say "go ahead." The CA will abbreviate this as "GA." You should not speak until you get the go ahead, because it will not be relayed.

The CA will relay all audio information to the Deaf/HoH person. This includes background noise, tone of voice, and anything else you could possibly hear over the phone. Since the CA is typing everything, it is important to talk slower than usual. Typical casual conversation runs around 150 to 200 words per minute, so if you maintain that speed, the Deaf/HoH person cannot understand what you are saying because the CA can't relay the information correctly.2 The CA is also supposed to act as transparent as possible; not participating in the conversation, and basically not saying anything at all except before the relay starts and after the relay ends.3 The CA is sworn to uphold your privacy, and cannot divulge any information about your call to anyone.

There are other VCO services. VCO to VCO enables both parties to speak, and the CA types what both parties say. Two line VCO enables a completely transparent experience for the hearing person. It requires two phone lines. One line lets the Deaf/HoH person speak directly to the hearing person. The other line allows the CA's text to come in simultaneously. However, since the hearing person may not be aware their speech is being typed, the CA may not always be able to keep pace. The Deaf/HoH person can tell the CA it is okay to abbreviate or even summarize the speech. There is also VCO to TTY, in which the CA types the first party's speech to the TTY user, and the TTY user types directly to the first party.

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    1 These people are sometimes referred to as relay operators.
    2 Sometimes you can hear the CA typing and this can serve as a cue to help pace your speech.
    3 Unfortunately, in one of my first VCO calls, the operator chastized me for talking too fast. It was certainly discouraging and did nothing to make me any more comfortable with VCO calls. Fortunately, I have had the pleasure of having more professional CAs (and I've made more effort to make it easier for them) so if this happens, know that it's not supposed to happen, and don't be discouraged.

  • New technology has made it possible for VCO calls to be full-duplex, though I have not yet heard of it being practically applied. Phones specially constructed for VCO, such as Ameriphone's Dialogue models, feature a small display screen in addition to the handset and dialing buttons. There is no keyboard, though many of the phones have a button that sends "VCO PLS GA" to the relay operator, signaling them to switch to VCO mode. And while TTYs used to require the 45bps Baudot code to communicate, many now have a "Turbo Code" feature or can communicate in ASCII. Turbo Code allows for full-duplex typed TTY conversations, a concept that could be carried over into the VCO world.

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