Sign language interpreters a lifeline for deaf community during coronavirus pandemic

Coronavirus: A lifeline to the deaf community
ASL feature: A lifeline to the deaf community.

Sign language interpreters have proven to be a lifeline for the deaf community at a time when face masks are obstacles in daily communication, and access to reliable information about COVID-19 in real-time is essential.

With more than 350,000 Canadians who are deaf, public health briefings about the novel coronavirus pandemic are delivered in English and French as well as in sign language.

The critical role sign language plays during the pandemic
The critical role sign language plays during the pandemic

READ MORE: Interpreting the crisis: Saskatchewan’s deaf community hopes for continued inclusion

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“Especially at a time like this when there is a crisis, who’s the most vulnerable people is those people that don’t have access to information,” said Windsor-based sign language interpreter Rebecca Stuckless in an interview with Global News reporter Mike Drolet.

The uptick in face mask usage means it’s harder to figure out when someone is speaking in public — a hurdle for anyone in the deaf community who needs to access grocery stores, with all their various new rules. 

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As the Canadian Association of the Deaf notes on its dedicated coronavirus page, the physical distancing rules in place because of the pandemic can mean less social support for the deaf community.

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Self-isolation and social distancing not only separate people from loved ones, they also erect “barriers in accessing regular health care, support programs and services, which lead to increased levels of anxiety,” the site says.

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READ MORE: Coronavirus: Sign language interpreter providing important service during Ontario news conferences

This can lead to more anxiety for a person trying to buy groceries or run errands. 

“You go in, and it’s kind of like a gamble,” said Kristin Snoddon, an associate professor at Toronto’s Ryerson University and a deaf activist. “Do I go to the right? Do I line up here?

“Somebody says something to you because you’ve been in the wrong place — you don’t know why you’re in the wrong place and you don’t have the information. They may be talking to you but you’re not hearing what they’re asking you to do. So there is heightened anxiety.”

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Headlines over the last few weeks have highlighted sign language interpreters spotted in the background of Canadian government press conferences — daily briefings that attract many eyeballs.

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There was Nigel Howard, the sign language interpreter in B.C. who now has an unofficial fan page on Facebook. Christopher DesLoges, who interpreted Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s briefings, was profiled last month in Global News and said he’s comfortable with the attention.

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“Some people are poking fun at it, and to be honest I’m really happy that people are noticing sign language, seeing sign language on the front line,” he said at the time.

Physical distancing rules have resulted in sign language interpreters in various provinces being moved to a room separate from the public briefings.

For instance, in Ontario, the interpreter is visible in a box in the corner of the screen. Technical challenges mean that the interpreter’s box is available through the province’s YouTube channel.

Saskatchewan didn’t even have an interpreter until complaints trickled in. 

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Coronavirus: Finding new ways to do business during a pandemic

“A friend of mine, she had to watch the Los Angeles news because they had the interpreter on the screen full-time,” said ASL interpreter Karen Nurkowski. 

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She has been a consistent presence for viewers in Saskatchewan who tune in for regular coronavirus updates by public health officials.

READ MORE: Live updates: Coronavirus in Canada

Patricia Spicer from Saskatchewan Deaf & Hard of Hearing Services told Global News reporter Anna McMillan in a recent interview that governments should abide by the Accessible Canada Act.

The Act recognizes ASL, Quebec Sign Language and Indigenous sign languages “as the primary languages for communication by deaf persons in Canada.”

“Finally, I feel that we are included and have access to information on what’s going on with COVID,” Spicer said.