Social Policy

Yukon’s Deaf Community gaining visibility and opportunity

The Yukon Deaf Community has been gaining visibility in the territory, with a number of public events this past year showcasing a noticeable addition: an American Sign Language interpreter.

When Amanda Smith was hired by the Yukon Government in 2012, it marked the first publicly funded interpreter service available in Canada. Before that, the Yukon’s Deaf Community relied on expensive private services, family members, and the 2008-2012 non-profit, Northern Institution for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (founded by Whitehorse City Councillor, Sampson Hartland). The consistent issue with interpreting services in the Yukon has been availability and consistency. Members of the Deaf Community were forced to book appointments around the limited availability of the interpreter, leaving little room for anything beyond critical services.

“Many small or remote communities have Deaf Persons, but without opportunities for ASL instruction and interpretation, they’re often hidden and unable to participate and communicate within their communities.”

Elke Kraemer-Tremblay has been a Whitehorse resident for 23 years, and is an active member of the Deaf Community, along with her husband Gerrard. She describes the time before the availability of a publicly funded interpreter as “frustrating & limiting.” Kraemer-Tremblay would conduct medical appointments through written notes, but pointed out that it was not always easy to seek clarification, and stressed the importance of having a concrete understanding of one’s health. Additionally, Kraemer-Tremblay described how her friends would invite her out to local theatre and arts events, but it was always a challenge to understand and enjoy the event without an interpreter to describe what was being said.

Today, the more than a dozen members of the Yukon Deaf Community are noticeably present and active in the community. Whitehorse’s SMRT POP UP’s locally loved Drunk Lecture Series has had two ASL interpreted events, and the Yukon Arts Centre has been working with Yukon’s Deaf Community to make performances and Public Gallery launches accessible. The 2016 Yukon Territorial Election’s Environmental Forum (organized by CPAWS and The Yukon Conservation Society) was also ASL interpreted, allowing Deaf members of the Yukon community to make a more greatly informed vote.

As is the pattern in the North when is comes to accessibility services, many communities are left without options when is comes to Deaf Persons. For some members of the Yukon Deaf Community, English is not read fluently, as ASL has been the mother-tongue and sole language for most of their lives. Kraemer-Tremblay describes this as an ongoing issue across the North. “Many small or remote communities have Deaf Persons, but without opportunities for ASL instruction and interpretation, they’re often hidden and unable to participate and communicate within their communities.”

The value of a publicly funded ASL interpreter has proven to be the opportunity for the Deaf Community’s deeper involvement in the community at large. While obviously consistent and free access to healthcare and government services is fundamentally important, the presence and involvement of the Deaf Community within arts, culture, and politics across the Yukon enriches the territory as a whole. The visibility and participation of Deaf & Hard of Hearing Persons in the Yukon is a community achievement that must be grown and protected.

In most instances that challenge accessibility and inclusion, Yukon and the rest of the North consistently come up short. And while accessibility advocacy work is being done by many hard working people across the Canadian Territories, the Yukon being the first to provide ASL services is a progressive move worth noting.

Publicly funded interpreters provide the opportunity for Deaf Persons to move to the North. The Yukon has the opportunity now to take advantage of the skills and contributions Deaf Persons make to the community, while the remaining North has yet to tap this cultural resource. As Kraemer-Tremblay passionately indicates, “Deaf People can do anything.”

The next chapter of progress for the Yukon Deaf Community comes down to awareness. It’s important for the Hearing community to know that the Deaf Community is alive and well, and is eager to join politics, art, festivals, and everything else that makes Yukon the wonderful place it is. Further, it’s important for the Hearing community to know that interpreter services are readily available. As the territory, city, and event planners seek to make their projects more accessible and inclusive, ensuring all members of the community can understand and participate in those initiatives is something the Yukon can be proud of.


Photo: istockphoto/Viktoryia Voinakh

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story indicated that Yukon’s 911 system was upgraded last year so that Deaf Persons had access to 911. This is incorrect. Yukon’s basic 911 system cannot receive text messages, email, or video communications. Deaf, hearing-impaired, or speech-impaired people must use a TTY device or have their message relayed by a third-party such as Bell Relay service. For more information, visit 911yukon.ca.

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