It’s taken years for broadcast news to be accessible for people who are Deaf. And there’s still a long way to go.
This story was funded by the J-Source Patreon campaign.
By Meagan Gillmore
On a Friday morning in late April, Kathy Munro dons her theatrical attire and prepares to work.
She’s spent more than 20 hours rehearsing the script. The front of her black blouse has enough detail to distinguish her from the white screen behind her, without distracting the audience. The sleeves are tight; flapping fabric won’t obstruct her movements. She declines to use an earpiece; larger motions may knock it out, she explains. Although a copy of the script is available, she doesn’t use it.
Munro is used to this. In more than 35 years as an American Sign Language (ASL)-English interpreter, she’s developed a particular love for interpreting theatre, from Shakespeare plays to hit musicals like The Lion King and Kinky Boots.
But today, her audience is only two people. Because Munro isn’t interpreting a musical for Mirvish Productions—instead she’s interpreting an award-winning documentary called “Being Jacqueline” for CBC Radio’s The Current.
Since February, CBC has been working on a pilot project to make Canada’s most-listened to radio interview show accessible to the more than 3.5 million estimated Canadians who are Deaf or hard of hearing—a group that outnumbers the program’s 2.3 million weekly listeners and is only slated to grow as the population ages (most hearing loss comes as a result of old age).
Like theatre, radio “is a venue that hasn’t really been accessible to Deaf people,” said Munro.
CBC began posting word-for-word transcripts of the show online on Feb. 1. One radio documentary a month will be interpreted into ASL, with video posted to The Current’s website.
CBC received a $62,000 grant from the Broadcasting Accessibility Fund Inc. for the project. The fund, believed to be unique in the world, helps broadcasters make their content accessible to consumers with various disabilities. The fund released its first set of grants in January. The recipients of the second round of funding should be announced in the fall.
“Our mandate is to move the yardsticks on accessibility,” said Richard Cavanagh, CEO of the fund. Applicants don’t need to suggest a project or device that’s unique worldwide—just something that doesn’t exist yet it in Canada. It’s independent and impartial. Projects need to be for devices or services that provide greater accessibility than what the Canadian Radio-television and Communications Commission required when the fund was created after Bell Canada purchased Shaw Media. For example, the fund wouldn’t approve a grant to help broadcasters provide closed-captioning for daytime television because they’re already required by the CRTC to do that, explained Cavanagh.
“The CBC project addressed a very, very important gap because radio content tends to be completely inaccessible to Deaf and deafblind consumers,” he said, calling the application an “absolute slam dunk” that was approved without hesitation.
Heather Boyce, CBC’s director of accessibility, is a member of the board. The fund has strict conflict of interest guidelines that forbid board members from voting on applications from organizations they represent, Cavanagh told J-Source.
The project is clearly having an impact, Tanya Springer, a producer on the DocProject who was involved in the initial application more than a year ago, told J-Source. As of late April, there had been 20,000 unique views of The Current’s transcripts, she said.
But the Deaf community’s reception has been mixed. While many call the transcripts helpful, they’d like to see more programs interpreted into ASL.
Estimates suggest 3.21 million Canadians are hard of hearing. This group is most likely to benefit from transcripts. Most hearing loss happens when people age, meaning signed languages, like ASL, aren’t their first languages.
Approximately another 350,000 Canadians identify as Culturally Deaf. This means they participate in and identify with the values and practices of Deaf culture, a culture based on a signed language. For many Deaf people, ASL is their first and preferred language—not written or spoken English. It is a unique language, with its own syntax and grammar. That’s one reason why people capitalize Deaf.
“There’s never a situation where you use a lower case when you’re talking about a language,” explained Rick Zimmer, co-ordinator of the Deaf studies program at Red River College in Winnipeg. “When you use a capital F for French, it incorporates a lot of meaning.”
In signed languages, that meaning often comes through gestures and facial expressions.
“The radio doesn’t apply to my life,” said Zimmer. Born profoundly Deaf, he has virtually no hearing. He prefers to watch news on television while reading closed-captioning. “That’s my concept of CBC when I think of CBC.” It’ll be a learning curve to know he can turn to transcripts of a radio show for news, he said.
Like most people, Zimmer finds himself going online or to social media for news updates. This is challenging. Many online videos often don’t have closed-captioning, let alone interpretation into a signed language, unless it’s a site created specifically for the Deaf.
Spoken and written English is fundamentally different from ASL, so it takes more than a written transcript or closed-captioning to make information truly accessible.
“Sign language is in 3-D,” said Gary Malkowski, vice-president of employer and stakeholder relations with the Canadian Hearing Society. “It’s in real action. You see it.”
Gestures and facial expressions are important to ASL grammar. They’re the equivalent of someone changing their tone or volume when they speak, a crucial way of understanding exactly what something means.
That’s crucial during important news events.
Sheila Montney, executive director the Deaf Centre for Manitoba, is responsible for updating the organization’s Twitter account to provide news for Deaf people. Once, she posted about a tornado warning. A Deaf man read that and knew to drive away from the storm. He couldn’t rely on television or radio updates for that information.
In the fall, CBC aired a special Mansbridge One on One that had ASL interpretations of interviews with federal party leaders. But the version with the interpretation was only available after the original broadcast aired. And breaking news events, like the Oct. 2014 shooting on Parliament Hill, had no closed captioning or ASL translation according to Malkowski.
Montney said she was thrilled when she heard about the ASL interpretation for radio broadcasts. A CBC employee told her about the initiative, and she spread the word. “I do wish it can be every day so we all can be equal like the hearing people,” she told J-Source in an email.
In January 2015 the CBC started work on an ASL translation, before the pilot project began. The Current aired “Deaf Jam,” a documentary about musicians who are Deaf or hard of hearing. It was produced by Willow Yamauchi, who lives with hearing loss herself. The producers wanted to make sure the Deaf community heard the story. They contacted Munro to interpret. Video of the interpretation was posted to The Current’s website.
It was “very well done,” said Malkowski. He easily understood the meaning of the words.
The first radio documentary translated as part of the pilot project was “The Housing Hack,” originally aired in March. Also produced by Yamauchi, it describes how many millennials are responding to rising housing costs by living together. The interpretation was announced on the radio broadcast, but the video isn’t included on that segment page of The Current’s website or alongside the episode transcript (viewers can see the interpretation here).
Some documentaries are easier to interpret than others, explained Munro. “Being Jacqueline” worked well because it doesn’t include names of people and places that are hard to spell or have many people speaking at once. In an interpretation, Munro has to introduce each speaker by name every time they begin to talk. That can slow down the process.
But there was a delay. It originally aired on The Current in May 2015.The video won’t be available until the end of this April—nearly a year later. The interpretation will be announced on a special blog post, Springer said after the taping.
Springer admits there’s been almost “zero publicity” about the project, though the CBC did issue a press release when the pilot began, and the transcripts are easily accessible on The Current’s website. It began as a side project, and has grown from there. Springer hopes it becomes the “new normal” for shows on the CBC-Radio One schedule. .
Accessibility is “no longer just a social policy concern that’s marginalized,” said Cavanagh. If grants continue at the current pace, the fund should last for another six years, he said. Discussions about how to raise more money have begun.
The Deaf community could benefit greatly—of the seven projects the fund’s approved, three are directly related to hearing loss.
If future projects, from CBC or elsewhere, involve ASL interpretation for broadcasts, the audience will be there.
“It’s that comforting ability to drive your car and listen to the radio, sit in your chair and listen to the radio,” explained Zimmer. “I would like to have that access as well, to without any effort watch in American Sign Language that interview [that aired on the radio].”
“Once the Deaf community knows that there’s ASL content available online, then of course people are going to be watching it,” said Malkowski.
Meagan Gillmore is a freelance writer in Toronto.