Deaf Canadians 'at risk' in times of national emergency

When the next ice storm, wildfire or terror attack happens, Canadians who are deaf or hard of hearing will be in greater peril than others because most public notification systems are not accessible to them, experts say. 

The Canadian Hearing Society estimates there are 3.15 million Canadians who are hard of hearing and 340,000 Canadians who are deaf, including an estimated 11,000 who are deaf-blind. In policy and in practice, Canada lags behind other countries in ensuring their safety in an emergency.

"Canadian deaf, hard-of-hearing, and deaf-blind people do not have access to information in a way that is designed to survive a crisis," said a report produced in March by DLR Consulting for the Canadian Hearing Society (CHS).

As the U.S. braced for Hurricane Florence earlier this month, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) deployed its sign language interpreters to accompany officials as they warned citizens and instructed them to get out of the way of danger.

An American Sign Language interpreter signs alongside an emergency management official during a Hurricane Florence update on CNN. (CNN/Twitter)

The agency has a variety of systems to communicate with deaf, hard-of-hearing or deaf-blind residents for disaster preparedness, action and recovery, including posting interpreted videos to its YouTube channel.  

No such co-ordination exists here.

"There are good intentions by the Canadian federal, provincial and territorial governments," the CHS report said, "but no provisions of planning, training and communication supports have been put into place to support its deaf, hard-of-hearing, and deaf-blind citizens in the event of a natural or human-induced disaster."

'A frightening experience'

In recent years, Canada has experienced catastrophic wildfires, floods and train derailments. Avalanches, ice storms and tornadoes are regular occurrences. We are not immune from terror attacks or mass shootings.

But many government agencies lack policies to address the deaf community in the event of an emergency, and what policies exist are applied inconsistently among the various levels of government and across departments.

For instance, the CRTC, the federal agency that regulates the broadcast industry in Canada, requires that all radio and TV stations and all wireless providers participate in the National Public Alerting System (NPAS). It's in the form of an audible tone. Alternate formats of the alerts may be issued, but "not every alerting authority or device has the capacity to produce or receive these formats," the website says. And alerts are not available on every type of device and every wireless network.

"When deaf people don't have access to information, it does put them at risk," said Debra Russell, president of the World Association of Sign Language Interpreters (WASLI) and lead author of the report for the CHS.

"For example, if the order is coming to evacuate and that's publicly accessible info but deaf people don't get it, they could still be in their homes when they should be evacuated.

"I think it can be a very frightening experience."

A former Ontario MPP and Canada's first deaf parliamentarian calls to mind the October 2014 attack on Parliament Hill.

"There were members of the deaf community that were there when all of Parliament Hill was locked down, so it was a safety issue and they didn't know what was happening," Gary Malkowski said in an interview with CBC News through a sign language interpreter.

Not enough interpreters

To reach the deaf community effectively would require messaging in multiple formats, for multiple platforms, because sign languages are not merely translated versions of English or French; they are distinct languages — and for some they are a first language. In Canada, the main sign languages are American Sign Language (ASL); langue des signes québécoise (LSQ); Indigenous Sign Language (ISL); and Inuit Sign Language, recognized by the government of Nunavut.

Public Safety Canada says each medium has "unique constraints."

"The CRTC sets out accessibility standards for these mediums, with the goal of ensuring that the information delivered through them, which infrequently includes emergency alerts, is available in as complete a form as possible for all Canadians, including those with auditory or visual impairments," spokesperson Zarah Malik said in an email.

But the new NPAS, which went into effect in April, is not equipped to send messages in a variety of forms, such as graphics and interpreted video. Researchers in Israel — where warning sirens ring out across the country when a threat is detected — say cellphone alerts should also have light and vibration to be accessible to all.

Alternate formats of the alerts may be issued, but "not every alerting authority or device has the capacity to produce or receive these formats," the website says. And alerts are not available on every type of device and every wireless network.

The conventional sources of information — TV newscasts, for example — also have to be adapted, experts and advocates say.

Malkowski, who is now with the CHS, says captioning only works for people who rely on captions. He would like to see Canada follow the example of Israel, Australia and New Zealand, where critical news broadcasts include live on-screen sign language interpreters. BBC News has for years had interpreters on its everyday newscasts in the U.K.

Watch an "in-vision" British Sign Language interpreter on BBC News.

The CHS has put together a pilot project demonstrating how it can be done here. 

"To see broadcasts during national disasters, from the Prime Minister's Office to the premier to the mayor, so that there are protocols and they have emergency interpreters on call lists for such emergencies," he said.

Rhondda Reynolds is training some of those interpreters. The head of the bachelor of interpretation program at Toronto's George Brown College says it's not easy to step into a critical situation in progress. 

Gary Malkowski is a former Ontario MPP who was Canada's first deaf parliamentarian. He's now with the Canadian Hearing Society and wants to see TV and internet broadcasts include sign language interpreters in times of national emergency. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

"It's on the fly and it has to be good, it has to be accurate," Reynolds said. "So the adrenaline is pumping, of course, because ultimately this is not something you can pre-plan."

The bigger challenge, she says, is that there simply aren't enough interpreters, trained or in training, to meet that demand.

National strategy

Co-ordination among jurisdictions is another challenge.

Public Safety Canada spokesperson Karine Martel said in an email that local authorities take the lead in communications during emergencies, and referred CBC News to provincial and territorial emergency management organizations for their policies on the use of sign language interpreters.

The issue of broadcasts would fall under the CRTC, Martel added.

The CHS report said there should be a national strategy to address the needs of the deaf community if Canada is to live up to its commitment to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which recognizes access to communications and personal safety as human rights. 

— With files from CBC's Kas Roussy, Marcy Cuttler

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