This article was written for High Times Magazine (original available here) , in hopes of helping to improve communication between cannabis workers and their deaf and hard of hearing customers.
What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you see the numbers 7-1-1? Is it the late night munchies stop all stoners are familiar with? No, that’s not it. Is it a special day in cannabis history? No, that’s not it either. It stands for TRS, a free nationwide number that is a telecommunications relay service, reached by dialing 7-1-1.
The 711 consumer guide explains “this is a free service for people with hearing or speech difficulties which allows the caller to use a telephone system via a text telephone (TTY) system”. Dialing 7-1-1 can be initiated from any telephone anywhere within the United States, much like 9-1-1.
As the cannabis industry continues to grow, it is beginning to face many issues that were not fully considered prior to implementation, including the issue of better assisting their disabled customers. In 1990, Title II (The Americans with Disability Act) became law. According to their website:
“The purpose of the law is to make sure that people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else. The ADA gives civil rights protections to individuals with disabilities similar to those provided to individuals on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin, age, and religion. It guarantees equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities in public accommodations, employment, transportation, state and local government services, and telecommunications.”
All Washington state cannabis retailers are required to follow these, WSLCB, and current Washington State and Federal Laws, including those regarding treatment of individuals with disabilities established by the ADA. According to the National Institute of Health, nearly 10,000,000 people in America are hard of hearing and about 1,000,000 are functionally deaf (1 in 20). Considering this statistic, it stands to reason that retailers on the cutting edge of communication will likely become the more successful, sustainable companies. At the same time, embracing alternative modes of communication shows more respect for disabled clients.
High Times decided to investigate how retail cannabis dispensaries in Washington-state currently service their deaf or hard of hearing customers and what they are expecting to improve in the future.
How Cannabis Companies Are Assisting Hard of Hearing or Deaf Clients
The author spoke with a Manager of Diamond Green, a Tacoma cannabis retailer, who indicated the only method they use at this time of communicating with their deaf customers is through writing.
There are several other methods of communicating aside from writing or sign language which retailers can start implementing to better service these special needs customers. Products such as real-time captioning (formed as a non-profit in 1979) which, according to the National Captioning Institute, ”provide[s] the option of television access to deaf and hard-of-hearing communities and subsequently to those learning to speak English as a second language”.
Speech-to-Speech Relay Service (STS) utilizes Communications Assistants to relay the conversation, maintained by the Federal Communications Commission and reached via the 7-1-1 system. The STS system enables people with speech difficulties to make telephone calls using their own voice (or an assistive voice device) to communicate with Communication Assistants (CAs) who relay the conversation.
The FCC IP Captioned Telephone Service (IP CTS) is a form of telecommunications relay service (TRS) that permits an individual who can speak but who has difficulty hearing over the telephone to use a telephone and an Internet Protocol-enabled device via the Internet to simultaneously listen to the other party and read captions of what the other party is saying. With IP CTS, the connection carrying the captions between the relay service provider and the relay service user is via the Internet, rather than the public switched telephone network.
Video relay service (VRS), operated by the Federal Communications System (FCC), allows hard of hearing and deaf people who use ASL to communicate with voice telephone users with video equipment, rather than through traditional typed text.
Internet Protocol Relay Service allows hard of hearing or deaf callers to utilize the Telecommunications Relay Service (TRS) through a computer via a personal computer or web-enabled device (such as a smartphone) to communicate through the telephone system with hearing persons. There are many benefits of employing an IP Relay System, which include availability, convenience (no TTY necessary), multiple calls can be made simultaneously, making conference calling quick and easy and quality as the transmission tends to be much faster via IP Relay than a TTY, according to the FCC.
Video remote interpreting (VRI) is used for video conferencing remotely, especially useful if there is a lack of interpreters. VRI is different from VRS (Video Relay Services) in that VRI works by video conferencing on both ends while VRS is a telephone conversation. Fees are associated with this service.
Budtenders tend to agree that effective communication with all customers is critical. Caitilin, a Budtender at Urban Bud, a Tacoma dispensary located downtown, said, “I have a customer that comes into my dispensary once every week or two. I’m not sure how limited his hearing is, but his speech is also affected. We communicate by writing, but I do know limited sign language from educational adaptations used in my childhood and with my own children. I am trying to learn more conversational and sales-relevant vocab”.
She then went on to say that after she answered that question, she had the immediate chance to put the 711 system into action when she picked up the next phone call.
“When the phone rang, I picked it up and the Interpreter let me know of the situation,” she said. “They were really easy to work with and I was lucky to have information beforehand that helped me be less hindering to them getting the information they needed for my customer.”
A former Budtender, Ashley, said, “I was so happy to put my ASL to use! It is important to communicate with customers when choosing a product like cannabis and to be able to properly help them find what they want and need”.
These statements make it clear the 711 system is imperative for both the customer and employee. There are additional methods many deaf cannabis customers choose to use when shopping at dispensaries, such as going with trusted companions (friends, family, or caregivers), or being accompanied by interpreters, or shopping online. Another important component each retailer should have is “chat boxes” on each dispensary website, however rather than outsourcing the chats or calls, these are jobs that should be filled by local employees.
Hiring or training staff in American Sign Language (or alternative sign languages) is also advisable.
Missing at least 5% of a potential customer base due to lack of communication does not seem to make a great deal of business sense. Rather, investing in training for current employees, vetting potential employees for signing skills, and investing in assistive technology will be the future of successful cannabis retailers.