The Globe and Mail
Ottawa must provide services to deaf
Sign language earns footing on par with English and French
Print Edition 22/08/06 Page A1
All government services must be available in sign language free of charge, according to a court ruling hailed by the deaf community for giving their languages de facto official status alongside English and French.
Deaf Canadians have fought for years to have the same access to federal services as everyone else. Until now the 300,000-strong community has had to pay for sign-language interpreters, a policy it argued was discriminatory under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
This month Mr. Justice Richard Mosley of the Federal Court agreed, ruling that the government must pay for interpreters.
"It means no more excuses, no more delays," lawyer Scott Simser, a deaf man who argued the case before Judge Mosley, said yesterday with the assistance of a telephone operator. Although the ruling does not set a deadline for Ottawa to act, Mr. Simser said he expects the government to move quickly.
Government officials were not available for comment yesterday and the potential cost of the ruling remains to be seen. People in the deaf community noted, though, that interpreters fluent in American Sign Language or la Langue des Sourds du Quebec typically cost $40-$60 an hour on a short-term basis. As such, the cost of staffing passport offices, RCMP detachments, border crossings and other federal points of contact could leave the government on the hook for tens of millions of dollars, if not more.
Sheila Carlin, president of the Canadian Association of the Deaf, acknowledged in an e-mail that the interpreter cost is "very expensive."
But Ms. Carlin, who is herself deaf, argued it is only fair that the costs be borne by the government.
"It is important that we all have the full access of all kinds of services without any problem," she wrote. "We all can sigh with relief and proceed."
Ms. Carlin -- whose organization represents deaf-blind, deaf and hard-of-hearing people -- suggested the decision paves the way for other disabled groups to seek easier access. Both she and Mr. Simser challenged all levels of government to abide by the ruling, which deals specifically with Ottawa.
The CAD had joined Mary Lou Cassie, Barbara Lagrange, Gary Malkowski and James Roots in pursuing the case. The applicants argued that the sign-language policy had inhibited their ability to contract with the federal government, participate in Statistics Canada surveying and gain access to the policy-development process.
Judge Mosley agreed.
"As Canadians, deaf persons are entitled to be full participants in the democratic process and functioning of government," he wrote in a decision released Aug. 11. "It is fundamental to an inclusive society that those with disabilities be accommodated when interacting with the institutions of government."
Ms. Carlin was exultant in an e-mail exchange yesterday.
"It has been a long time . . . to fight, but right now we don't have to. It is a victory for us to know [what] we have accomplished," she wrote. "I would like to see all of us have equal rights because we all are human!"
Public Works and Government Services Canada has made no public comment on the ruling and has not said whether it plans to appeal. Mr. Simser said yesterday that Ottawa will have a strong fight on its hands if it chooses to appeal.
Deaf advocates were upset that they had to go back to court, nearly a decade after the Supreme Court ruled, in the Eldridge case, that British Columbia had to provide interpreters to deaf people accessing the health-care system.
But now, Mr. Simser said, the community has won a victory whose impact should be felt beyond interactions with the federal government. Ms. Carlin agreed, saying that her organization "wants to see all levels of government live up to" the ruling.