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Coronavirus: Toronto’s deaf community praises increased use of sign language interpreters

Sarah Stadnicki (top right) provides sign language interpretation at a City of Toronto COVID-19 update on March 26, 2020.
Sarah Stadnicki (top right) provides sign language interpretation at a City of Toronto COVID-19 update on March 26, 2020. Source: City of Toronto

Members of Toronto’s deaf community are praising the increased use of sign language interpreters at news conferences amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Often at the corner of television screens or behind the podium in recent weeks, officials are joined by an interpreter signing the latest details on the coronavirus situation.

“The information is becoming much more clear for us. It’s very visual,” said Wayne Nicholson, president of the Canadian Association of Sign Language Interpreters, signing through an interpreter.

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He credits recent federal legislation — the Accessible Canada Act, signed last year — for the jump in the use of sign language at announcements, particularly in recent days.

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“The information is changing on a daily basis and that change can have direct impact on deaf people’s lives,” he said.

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“It’s changing minute by minute, as we know, and so deaf people should know about those changes as well.”

Sarah Stadnicki, who freelances as an interpreter for the City of Toronto and is also deaf, said before interpreters were frequently used, the deaf community would often feel overwhelmed by the information delivered in spoken English and through subtitles.

“For us — for deaf people — English is like a puzzle. We have to take the words we understand and put it into a puzzle and try to make it a visual language for us,” she explained via an interpreter.

Stadnicki said her work as an interpreter amid the COVID-19 crisis comes with increased stress, but she insists it is essential for others like her.

“[Now] we have a better understanding of what is my personal responsibility in this pandemic and what is actually happening in the world,” she said.

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Providing sign language translation isn’t just beneficial to deaf community members, but also helps the general population contain the spread of the virus, explained the association’s vice president, Becky Stuckless.

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“I think we have to recognize, if we want to flatten the curve, we need to get the information out to everyone and that means providing [American Sign Language] interpreters,” she said.

Nicholson said he hopes sign language interpretation remains consistently in place beyond the pandemic. He also wants to see improvements at the local level nation-wide.

“I think we’ve done better on a national level,” he said.

“Local levels are still struggling, so I think that’s where we need go next: is [to] make sure that local information is also being accessible.”