As governments and medical officials across Canada ramp up their public communication regarding COVID-19, many of their messages are not getting through to those who rely on sign language interpreters.

Advocates for Canada’s Deaf community say they are missing out on up-to-date information about COVID-19 due to a dearth of interpretative services both on-site at multiplying news conferences and in media broadcasts of those events.

It’s meant Sarah Stadnicki has had to step in to make sense of events for family members overwhelmed by closed captioning and unable to either see or understand the interpreter when they are provided.

“Without proper language access, Deaf people are relying on their knowledge of the English vocabulary and then try to puzzle it together,” Stadnicki said. “That in itself is harmful.”

“In stressful situations, the mind does not have the luxury to process the true meaning of the information,” she added. “It’s all collecting and then becomes overwhelming. Then swoosh it’s all gone.”

She said that it was difficult to understand the interpreters at a recent federal government event because they were placed at the ends of a long table of officials and were therefore too small for viewers to make out their hand motions. She added that many Deaf people had also struggled to understand a City of Toronto ASL interpreter.

The problem prompted the Ontario Association of Sign Language Interpreters to send a letter to broadcasters on Tuesday offering the services of their interpreters.

“There has been a lack of real-time ASL and Deaf Interpreters throughout all media,” the group’s president, Georgia Whalen, told National Observer.

“It’s very important that all media, especially on COVID-19, have communications available to all Canadian citizens and that includes Deaf citizens,” she said. “Deaf citizens want full information equivalent to their hearing peers.”

She said some municipal governments had so far been accommodating, noting the efforts of Belleville and Hamilton municipalities in Ontario and the provinces of Newfoundland and Labrador and British Columbia. But she added that pressure needed to be applied so all levels of government and all broadcasters include ASL (American Sign Language) and Deaf Interpretation at all times.

Stadnicki, who was born Deaf to Deaf parents and had worked as a Deaf interpreter for five years, said ideally broadcasts and live streams would feature a Deaf interpreter displayed as a split screen or a “picture in picture” on screens to ensure clear communication.

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