RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- Virginia is the first state in the country to provide real-time American Sign Language (ASL) support for coronavirus vaccine information, according to the Virginia Health Department.  

It’s part of a broader push to expand language resources at state agencies–a need highlighted by the pandemic. 

The Vaccinate Virginia Call Center was set up to answer questions about the immunization campaign and to assist people with the pre-registration process, especially those who aren’t computer savvy.

Now, VDH has hired four ASL-fluent staff members, making critical information more accessible to over 50,000 people in the Commonwealth who use the language. 

That’s according to Eric Raff, director of the Virginia Department for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, who spoke to 8News through an interpreter on Thursday. 

“There are about seven other states that are researching this and I really am proud that we are the first,” Raff said. 

There are two ways to access the new service, which is available seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. 

To do so by videophone, ASL users should call 1-877-VAX-IN-VA  (1-877-829-4682).

By computer, people should go to the Vaccinate Virginia home page and click on the “ASL Now” icon to launch the video chat feature. After a brief wait, an ASL-fluent representative will show up on screen. The staff members are equipped to answer a variety of logistical questions and respond to vaccine-related concerns, according to VDH. 

Raff explained that ASL is not English “on the hands;” it has its own grammar, syntax and vocabulary. He said the new service will cut down on call times and reduce the likelihood of misunderstandings, which are generally more common with an interpreter.

“It really puts the deaf Virginians on an equal playing field. It is more equitable access. There is a big difference between using an interpreter as a third party and having direct communication with someone,” Raff said. “As you know from the telephone game, anytime you add more people there is a chance of losing things in translation.” 

VDH partnered with Connect Direct, a subsidiary of not-for-profit Communication Service for the Deaf (CSD), to stand up the service. 

“Many state services, including health services, are often inaccessible to Deaf ASL users. We encourage more state governments to follow Virginia’s lead,”  Craig Radford, Vice President of Strategy and Business Development at CSD. 

The launch comes after VDH recently decided to record additional phone menu options to reflect the top spoken languages in Virginia, including Mandarin, Cantonese, Arabic, Vietnamese and Korean. 

The expansion is in line with calls from the newly formed Asian American and Pacific Islander Caucus in the General Assembly. 

Del. Mark Keam (D-Fairfax), one of its founding members, is pushing for more language accessibility at all state agencies, especially the Virginia Employment Commission.

“Just the fact that they are unable to speak and understand English does not mean that they deserve any less service from their government. So that’s the fundamental principle,” Keam said.

Keam said the VEC’s web resources are largely in English and its prerecorded call center menus are generally offered in English and Spanish. He said some of his Asian-American constituents struggled to navigate the already complicated process and understand technical language being translated by an automated system, rather than by a native speaker. 

“Most Americans feel there government isn’t working for them and I want to reduce that concern by showing that we can in fact provide those services,” Keam said.