It’s Not a Condition, It’s a Culture: Deaf Community in Northern Ontario Hopes for Increased Support Services


Values, norms, traditions and identity are four of the five components that compose a culture. Language, is also a factor composing the components -and is perhaps the most significant indicator, of culture. Language is much more than a tool to communicate thoughts and ideas. Culture and language are entwined, providing a foundation that enables one’s understanding of personal identity and broader role in society.

But language is not always spoken. And as with the Deaf, individuals are not born of the culture but born into a culture that must be sought out by the individual. The Deaf community has their own rich heritage, traditions and social rules and it becomes the responsibility of the older generation to pass on these mores to the generation that follows.

Within in their own community the Deaf engage naturally but outside of their culture, the world becomes silent.


Billie Skevington is culturally Deaf- she was born that way. She is a college-educated and professionally employed woman and lives in a rural community outside of Sudbury, Ontario. As she interacts with the hearing world, Skevington must consistently mitigate inaccurate perceptions held by society, about herself and other Deaf folk.

“I stand up for my People, my community, and I fight for our equal rights. We are Deaf but we are not broken. We lost our hearing but we did not lose our intelligence, our soul, our love our spirit and our drive for life,” remarks Skevington.

Lesley Sawchyn, Community Interpreter, Canadian Hearing Society

On February 28th, 2017, the Northern Hoot spoke with Lesley Sawchyn, a Community Interpreter registered through Ontario Interpreting Services (OIS), and employed with the Canadian Hearing Society (CHS) in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. Though not known to one another and having never met, Sawchyn supported Skevington’s observations.

“Deaf individuals are still facing attitudinal barrier,” commented Sawchyn. “To this day people correlate that if you’re deaf your brain doesn’t work. You still hear that term- ‘deaf and dumb’. It has nothing to do with your brain activity. Just because you can’t hear something doesn’t mean that you don’t know. Those attitudes are still a hindrance in 2017.”

Skevington is concerned about a deficit in services for the Deaf community in Northern Ontario. Originally from Southern Ontario, Skevington noticed a vast contrast in interpretation service in terms of access to interpreters. Skevington notes that, in her opinion, there is a shortage of interpretation service across the province but Northerners have it the worst.

“It was a culture shock,” admitted Skevington. “I was so accustomed to the service I got in Southern Ontario but when I moved here scheduling for meetings or workshops was hard. I was not impressed with the whole concept of how a deaf person was expected to live here.”

Skevington explained that in Sudbury there is 1 American Sign Language Interpreter (English) and 1 Langue des Signes Québécoise (French).

Both Skevington and Sawchyn attributed, in part, the perceived shortage in interpretation services, to the closure of post-secondary institutions that offer studies in ASL interpretation programs. At one time 4 college offered the program but today only 1 school, George Browne College, offers the course. Adding to that challenge is that the once 3 year course now requires 5 years of study. According to Sawchyn, a high program drop-out rate also contributes to the shortage of interpreters.

“It’s a very demanding program. You’re learning another language and coming at it as an adult. It’s a language that isn’t English based –it has a French background, so it has its own syntax, grammar and facial expressions are a very big part of the language,” explained Sawchyn.

The investment of time to become registered and to acquire full-time employment in the field may also deter individuals from committing to the study of ASL interpretation.

“Once you’re done 3 to 5 years of schooling you’re not ready to be registered,” remarked Sawchyn. “It takes years to build your skill and experience and it could take years for people to go on to become gainfully employed.”

For those living in the North the vast landscape is not to be overlooked. Sawchyn identified that there was 1 ASL interpreter in Thunder Bay, 2 ASL interpreters in Sault Ste. Marie (covering the entire Algoma District), 1 ASL and 1 LSQ interpreter in Sudbury, and 1 ASL interpreter in North Bay. There are freelance interpreters throughout the region and the educational system employs interpreters though they are not registered through OIS.

Sawchyn indicated that there could be up to 100 Deaf people in the Algoma District who require the services of herself or her co-worker to attend their diverse needs and that there are upwards of 25 Deaf people in the Sault with 15 of those individuals regularly requiring interpretation services throughout the week. There isn’t any luxury spared for sick time and the small team of two works Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and then share the on-call after emergency hours from 5 p.m. to 8 a.m. from Sunday thru to Saturday.

Sawchyn’s role as an interpreter positions her work all along the spectrum between life and death. “I might be in a labour delivery room or interpreting a person’s funeral,” commented Sawchyn. “We attend all sort so medical appointments from gynecology to colonoscopy’s. We go to banking appointments, parent-teacher interviews, job interviews and driving lessons. Interpreters, in general, provide communication for people’s milestones like births, weddings, graduations and also provide interpretation for the not so nice events one may face, like hospice end of life, funerals or legal issues.”

With Thunder Bay 8 hours north and Sudbury 3 hours east of Sudbury, satisfying this wide range of needs in the Algoma District can be onerous for just two people.

Billie Skevington, Northern Ontario Association for Deaf, Canadian Hearing Society service user

And Skevington says that geography is not any better for those living around Sudbury and North Bay.

“The interpreters we have are well trained, however, they are in need of more interpreters in Sudbury. The North Bay interpreters can cover some assignments but sometimes OIS has to fly people from Toronto to interpret which is costly and ridiculous,” commented Skevington.

Services through OIS are funded by the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Community and Social Services. Freelance interpretation services are an out of pocket expense for the Deaf community.

The Northern challenge is exacerbated for Deaf folk living in rural communities. To compensate for the shortage of interpreters OIS launched a Video Relay Interpreter. It’s the next best thing to having an interpreter attend appointments etc. in the flesh. But it’s not always an easy option to access.

Skevington explained, “The Video Relay system is good but there is a problem for people that live outside of Sudbury who will have to drive to CHS to pick up the system –it’s also hard for people that have to take the bus. It’s a good system but not the best solution for people who live in rural areas that may have to drive 30 minutes to Sudbury to get the device, drive to the appointment in their hometown, and then drive back to Sudbury to return the device.”

When an agency or an organization is providing service to a member of the Deaf community, is that entity is required to schedule an interpreter through OIS. But Skevington remarked that often individuals will arrive at their appointment and find that interpretation arrangements were never made. “So many Deaf people turn to their loved ones to help them interpret. This takes a Deaf persons independence away,” stated Skevington.

Subbing in family or friends to compensate for the absence of an interpreter is never advisable. As Sawchyn points out, family are not qualified interpreters and by having a family member in a position of “pseudo interpreter” the true message being conveyed to the Deaf individual may be compromised.

“We’re practitioners of communication,” clarified Sawchyn. “An interpreter is a neutral unbiased individual that faithfully renders a message that is between a hearing individual and a Deaf individual. An interpreter works between a visual gestural language and a spoken language. There are many interpreting models but for laymen’s terms an interpreter listens to a message, process it in a short amount of time and then puts the message out visually or auditorily. There is lag time -the time that the interpreter has to process the message that is spoken or signed, and the interpreter has to understand the intent which includes tone- is it sarcastic? Funny? Serious? And then there is consideration given to the relationship between the parties –is it intimate? Professional?”

To ensure that their right to full inclusion and quality of life, the Deaf community have begun booking interpreters through OIS. This growing movement of self-advocacy has emphasized that there simply are not enough interpreters to service Northern Ontario.

Remarked Sawchyn, “Individuals are taking the initiative to coordinate their interpreters through OIS. So the services is being used more and the service is being booked up. That didn’t happen before so it was easier for people to book an appointment for an interpreter. The days of bringing your son or daughter or parent to advocate for you are long gone and so are the days of being satisfied with just writing notes back and forth. If there is an interpreter in the community, they are demanding their right to equitable, qualified access.”

For the hearing community who has little familiarity with the Deaf culture, the presence of an interpreter might be somewhat nerve-wracking. But Sawchyn is quick to point out that her role is not meant to make anyone feel uncomfortable interacting with a Deaf person who is using an interpreter.

“Were not there to intimidate anybody,” assured Sawchyn. “Our goal is to give the best interpretation that we possibly can. And to work with the deaf individual to reach their goal and to work with the third party to reach their goal. We’re just there to let communication happen. We’re not there to hold judgement or opinion or to skew the message. We follow a strict code of ethics that is governed through the Association of Visual Language Interpreters of Canada. Confidentiality is the first tenet of the code. And we’re not there to dissect the message. We’re there to render the message faithfully and in all of its intent for the audience it is intended for.”


Almost a week after this interview, CUPE Local 2073 commenced strike action against the Canadian Hearing Society. Skevington hopes that the action will improve working conditions for front line staff and that a strike outcome could lead to improved support for all CHS service users. You can read more about Skevington’s thoughts about the strike action by clicking here.



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