Canada Must Make Communication More Inclusive For Deaf People

Author: Paula Bath

(MENAFN- The Conversation) I am a hearing person married to a deaf person. In 2015, I remember going to the midwife clinic for our first baby's appointment. We arranged for our own sign language interpreter because we knew there would be communication barriers, and that no one else would.

When the midwife walked in, we mentioned that we had brought the sign language interpreter to facilitate communicating together. But the midwife escorted the interpreter out of the office, saying the clinic did not have the funding for such services.

The Supreme Court of Canada's 1997 decision in Eldridge v. British Columbia emphasized the necessity of sign language interpretation for effective health care to be provided. Despite this legal precedent, we were powerless in the face of an entrenched system. When the midwife returned, she told me:“You can hear. You can speak. You can interpret.”

This experience is a prime example of the communication barriers people continue to face. A barrier that current legislation is still struggling to address.

Lack of inclusive communication

What is at issue it not a communication barrier, but rather a lack of inclusive communication. Saying it is a communication barrier implies that communication did not happen; that something - a misunderstanding or misinterpretation - blocked communication from occurring.

But this is not the case. Communication is ongoing and did happen. In the case with our midwife, there was no misunderstanding. We sat in the room. We watched her lips move with gestures. And I, the hearing person, said“sorry” to my deaf partner through my eyes. Then became a vessel letting the midwife's spoken words pass through me - in my ears and out my hands.

The question is, how well are we doing as a society? How can we begin to make communication more inclusive if we cannot see or feel the effects of what we do and say on others?

Paula Bath explains her research into removing barriers to communication using sign language.

June 2024 marks five years since Parliament passed the Accessible Canada Act (ACA) . The law was enacted with the purpose of making Canada barrier-free by 2040. The ACA recognizes sign languages as the primary language used by deaf people in Canada and sets out to identify, remove and prevent barriers to communication, one of its priority areas.

However, to create a more accessible society, we need to increase awareness about diverse perspectives and lived experiences while communicating, and learn about what types of barriers exist.

My PhD research focuses on communication accessibility law. I aim to better understand how laws play out in real-world situations, similar to my own, and to find ways to build social environments with more inclusive communication between deaf and hearing people.

One of the best ways to measure progress is by comparing legal cases over time.

Nigel Howard's human rights challenge

In 1993, Nigel Howard, a deaf graduate student, issued a human rights challenge against the University of British Columbia (UBC). He alleged that UBC failed to provide sign language interpreters, which are essential for his participation in classes. The estimated cost for interpreters at that time was $49,000.

UBC argued that providing interpreters would impose undue financial hardship. Howard described the challenges he faced during lectures, where he felt excluded and exhausted by the burden of lip reading.

Sound-based spoken language is not designed to be read visually from the lips. Many words look similar on our lips, such as fat, bad and sand. Additionally, words often have to be read at side angles or through mustaches, adding to the challenge.

When lip reading is required, the onus and burden falls completely on the deaf person to strain, decode and piece information together. Meanwhile, the hearing person remains fully within their comfort zone.

Howard described how his experience without interpreters made him feel like a child who had to repeatedly ask others for help. The tribunal ruled in his favour, determining that UBC had discriminated against him. It recognized that UBC's failure to provide sign language interpreters adversely affected Howard due to his deafness and failed to reasonably accommodate him by providing sign language interpreters.

Unfortunately, 20 years later, the same thing happened again.

A man walks by a mural of Dr. Theresa Tam, chief public health officer (right), with sign-language interpreter Nigel Howard (left) created by artist Ian Morris along Government St. in Victoria, B.C. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito Dunkley v. UBC

In 2010, Jessica Dunkley , a deaf Métis woman, got a dermatology residency at UBC and requested sign language interpretation to facilitate her participation. The university estimated the cost for providing interpreters was $2.5 million. But yet again, it stated the expense would impose undue financial hardship.

In Dunkley's case, the university listed several matters of concern, including:

. The need to hire three full-time interpreters during the program;

. Prohibitive costs involved;

. Identifying necessary and alternative funding sources;

. Assessing the qualifications and training of interpreters;

. Ensuring the availability of interpreters;

. Managing contractual arrangements;

. Addressing insurance and liability issues in the clinical setting;

. Obtaining patient consent; and

. Ensuring compliance with patient confidentiality and privacy laws.

The university insisted that these matters were not barriers, but rather“matters that must be addressed and systems put in place in order to proceed.”

In other words, the university required these matters to be resolved before considering Dunkley's accommodation request for sign language interpreters. However, the university was not barring her from participating in the residency program. Instead, Dunkley would just need to rely on lip reading.
The ACA addresses institutional accountability to accessibility by enforcing their duty to consult with people with disabilities and to report on progress on accessibility plans.

But what is missing in Canada is co-ordination of resources, tools and funding to provide inclusive communication. As the inclusion of deaf people in communication is increasing, so is the need to provide services they require and the cost of those services. These increasing costs give institutions an excuse to deny interpreting requests and claim undue financial hardship, forcing deaf people to take matters to court just to be able to communicate efficiently.

In 2023, I interviewed Dunkley as part of my ongoing PhD research. She explained that when institutions are unwilling to provide sign language interpreting services due to cost, they often seek an out and add barriers to inclusion, like health and safety.

In Dunkley's case, the university began to discuss concerns around confidentiality and privacy laws after the initial concern for the cost of interpreting services. Dunkley shared her perspective using American Sign Language:

In 2015, Dunkley won her human rights case , five years after the start date of her residency.

Canada's accessibility laws need to reach all the spaces where deaf and hearing people need to communicate freely and authentically, moment to moment. Finding ways for to co-ordinate resources and support sign language communication will move us all forward and into more inclusive environments where we can all listen, learn and speak together.

The Conversation


The Conversation

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