Provincial and federal government didn’t include interpreters from day one, says accessibility advocate Liny Lamberink, CBC News
Posted: Apr 05, 2020
Sign language interpreters are being lauded for communicating critical information from the provincial and federal governments about COVID-19, but a pair of accessibility advocates say their presence at media briefings should be normalized.
Premier Doug Ford heaped praise on Christopher Desloges during an address last Wednesday, calling him a “champion” and a commending him for playing an important role for the deaf community.
While it’s “okay” that Ford drew attention to the American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter’s work, the executive director of the Ontario Association of the Deaf, Donald Prong, said the focus should be on media briefing instead.
“Say for example, you see an individual who has a guide dog or a service dog. You wouldn’t allow people to pet the service animal, because it’s a working dog. I think that should be a parallel to a working interpreter,” Prong explained.
Donald Prong, executive director of Ontario Association of the Deaf, says the deaf community had to lobby the provincial and federal government to get sign language interpreters at media briefings.
The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, which is supposed to be fully implemented by 2025, says emergency information presented orally should be made accessible through real time captioning, a transcript and interpreters.
But, according to Prong, the deaf community had to lobby the province for more than a week before an ASL interpreter appeared alongside the premier during pandemic media briefs, and it took days for the federal government to do the same.
“This is a very serious time that we’re in, and we deserve to have equal access to that message in our language to ensure we’re receiving the appropriate information,” he said. “Without interpreters, how can we participate in the effort to fight this virus?”
Robert Gaunt is the executive director for the Ontario North and Ontario West branches of The CNIB Foundation, a charitable organization that enables people who are blind or have vision loss. He too advocates that information be equally accessible to those who have disabilities, and said the foundation is ramping up virtual programming.
That includes training on software that turns text into speech, which Gaunt said has become an “essential service” enabling people who have vision loss to access critical health and safety information and stay connected.
“We’re very quickly seeing a very high response rate to the programs that we’re offering,” he said.
When it comes to the praise sign language interpreters are receiving amid the pandemic, Gaunt has a reminder.
“It’s always wonderful to celebrate accessibility and inclusion,” he explained. “The thing we need to remember is that should be the norm. As much as it stands out in this point in time, that really should be the standard and where we’re already at.”
Barriers facing deaf community
Meanwhile, members of the deaf community are still encountering barriers related to the pandemic.
Prong said people can connect to Ontario’s COVID-19 hotline using Canada’s video relay service (VRS), which enables those with hearing or speech disabilities that use sign language to communicate over the phone. But some people also need a deaf interpreter to make the system work, and there isn’t always one available, said Prong.
And although VRS enables people to call 911, Prong said there are no interpreters to help communicate when emergency personnel arrive on scene.
“Interpreters are very difficult to find, and especially during this time, they’re fewer and far between.”