Seeing Deaf People, Hearing Their Demands

Governor General Mary Simon claps in sign language for Veronique Leduc of Montreal after she received the Meritorious Service Medal (Civil Division) at the Presentation of Canadian Honours at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on 17th September 2021.
Governor General Mary Simon claps in sign language for Veronique Leduc of Montreal after she received the Meritorious Service Medal (Civil Division) at the Presentation of Canadian Honours at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on 17th September 2021. | Photo (detail): Justin Tang © picture alliance /

Neither top nor bottom of the class, Canada is slowly but surely moving towards accessibility for the deaf community.

By André Lavoie

Every cloud has a silver lining, and sometimes rather unexpectedly.

It took the sudden arrival of COVID-19 for sign language interpreters, previously a rarity, to appear on the screens. During the famous daily press conferences of François Legault, Premier of Quebec, in the first months of the health crisis in 2020, this presence reassured deaf people, while becoming an awareness-raising tool for others. Broadcast on several television networks, one of them attracted as many as 2,735,000 people. Canada is still far behind countries like Israel, Australia and New Zealand with their television newscasts where the presence of interpreters is a matter of course.

Deaf people are nonetheless present just about everywhere in the country. According to the Canadian Hearing Society, in 2018, there were 3.15 million people with hearing loss, 340,000 people who are deaf, and 11,000 who are both deaf and blind. Are they being heard by politicians and civil society? In 1990, Gary Malkowski was the first deaf parliamentarian to be elected in Canada, in Ontario to be precise, but his example has not led to any real momentum, even though politicians at all levels of government are making increasing efforts to be inclusive.

Canada has two official languages: English and French. Their use and promotion are regulated by a law dating back to 1969, but this law has not enhanced the bilingualism of all Canadians - a fantasy vision fostered by then Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau, father of current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Deaf people are however nurturing the hope that theirs will be recognised by the State, and there are four of them: Langue des Signes Québécoises, LSQ (Quebec Sign Language), American Sign Language (ALS), adopted by English Canada, the sign language of Indigenous people, and Inuit Sign Language, used in Nunavut Territory.

In the absence of such legal recognition, numerous initiatives have enabled the integration of deaf people in the public space, promoted their schooling from primary school to university, ensured the training of competent interpreters, not to mention a still modest illustration of the deaf reality in various cultural productions.

But it is not a panacea, according to Alice Dulude, president of the Association québécoise des interprètes en langue des signes (AQILS, Association of Quebec Sign Language Interpreters). "The Canadian Accessibility Act, which came into effect in 2019, has had a great impact on persons with disabilities as well as on deaf people, but according to the United Nations, Canada is still lagging behind and could soon be rapped on the knuckles [by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights] since it is a signatory of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Count on deaf people to lobby for change," the mother of two underscores.

And that could surely launch with official recognition of sign language, something already achieved in countries as diverse as Finland and Kenya, Venezuela and Papua New Guinea, not to mention Thailand, Iceland and Portugal.

The COVID-19 Factor

Whereas all acknowledge the many advancements brought about by the pandemic, not all of them were implemented quickly, as if the health emergency did not work at the same speed for deaf people. Quickly politicised, the issue of wearing masks in public places caused many headaches for people with impaired hearing. “It took nine months for the government to accept transparent masks," stresses Florence Lacombe, vice-president of AQILS. “Lip-reading, the 'grammar of the mouth', is not practised by all deaf people, but a lot of information is conveyed through the face, including the mouth - another fact that shows that we have to keep fighting and justifying our needs without respite.”

Others fear a hype effect. Chantal Laforest, executive director of Alpha Sourds, a literacy organisation for deaf people in Quebec City, the province's capital, sees the impact of limited resources on a daily basis for those who have been neglected to be taught French early, a choice guided mostly by prejudice, or the language of origin of deaf immigrants and refugees who have arrived in Canada, and even less so sign language. “It's a big challenge for these illiterate people," laments Chantal Laforest, "which sometimes forces us to deviate from our remit in order to respond to numerous requests. There are many more organisations in Montreal than in Quebec City, but we do our best to develop the self-esteem of deaf people in general, because many of them live very isolated.”

Being Heard, Being Seen

The many challenges faced by members of the deaf community include having access to sign language courses - the younger you are, the easier it is to learn-, prejudice - it is not a disability, but a culture with its own codes and languages depending on the part of the country, which are as numerous as oral languages -, and the availability of interpreters as well as the quality of their training.

Michaël Lelièvre knows something about this, having worked for a long time with signers - people who express themselves in sign language - and aspiring interpreters, teaching in a secondary school for deaf students, as well as being a lecturer in the French - LSQ Interpretation Major programme at University of Quebec at Montreal for the past 30 years.

This youngest member of a family whose parents, four sisters and one brother are deaf has long noted the difficulties of integrating hearing students into the school system and their marginalisation in the job market. At a time of great labour shortages across Canada, Michaël Lelièvre is still surprised that deaf people are not given more opportunities. "We have long proven that we are creative and resourceful," insists this holder of a bachelor's degree in linguistics and a master's degree in language pedagogy.

According to him, the progress made during the pandemic will be sustainable if deaf people and their interpreters gain visibility. He points for that matter to the curiosity of Quebec director Philippe Falardeau (Monsieur Lazhar, The Good Lie, My Salinger Year), who will present his first fictional television series, Le temps des framboises (The Time of Raspberries), in spring 2022. One of the main characters is deaf, an idea that came to the filmmaker after seeing the performers at François Legault's press conferences during the pandemic. "Since he needed the advice of the deaf community to understand it well, he hired me, to coach also the actor Xavier Chalifoux, whom I had previously taught!”

Even though regional disparities in resources will continue to be felt for a long time to come in Canada, a sparsely populated country (38 million inhabitants) and a large area (9.985 million square kilometres), the deaf community is more determined than ever to be seen and heard.

All interviews for this article benefited from the valuable cooperation of interpreters Nathalie Gilbert and Karine Bénard.

This article was produced for Zeitgeister, the global cultural online magazine of the Goethe-Institut. It addresses global issues and perspectives and invites authors, experts, activists and us all to join a worldwide discussion of culture and society. The magazine offers a platform for international actors in the fields of culture, art, science and civil society to engage on an equal footing in wide-ranging exchange about the above topics of debate and issues of outstanding cultural and societal relevance.