Deaf Windsorites struggle without sign language interpreters during strike

Workers at Canadian Hearing Society have been on strike since early March

Chris Newman

Chris Newman has struggled to get proper interpreting services for medical appointments during the Canadian Hearing Society workers' strike. (Rob Heydari/CBC)


Three weeks into a strike by Canadian Hearing Society workers, members of Windsor's deaf community are starting to feel the impact of going without services — some said they've even had to cancel medical appointments because of limited access to interpreters.

The Hearing Society provides hearing aid repair, career and employment counselling, and sign language education and interpretation. Deaf and hard of hearing people also rely on the CHS to provide sign language interpreters for critical interactions such as medical and legal appointments.

Chris Newman is deaf, and told CBC News alternatives to having human interpreters help at places like the doctor's office aren't enough.

"I had a doctor's appointment last week that ended up being cancelled because there was no interpreter available," he said through a sign language interpreter. "For a deaf person without an interpreter ... it might take two to three times longer because everything has to be written down."

"I want to be able to use my language": the impact of the Canadian Hearing Society strike 0:38

What's often a humourous cliché about how legible a doctor's handwriting is turns into a serious barrier for the deaf or hard of hearing.

"Writing leaves too much of a margin of error," said Newman. "Sometimes the doctors... it's hard to read, their style of writing. I might misunderstand what they're trying to tell me."

"I want to be able to use my language" - Chris Newman, Canadian Hearing Society client

Newman, like many in the deaf community, uses American Sign Language or ASL as his first language.

Using written English to communicate is functionally a second language for him.

"I can't communicate in my language, I want to be able to use my language," said Newman to CBC News through an ASL interpreter.

While management for the Society says that interpreter services are being maintained, several on the picket line in Windsor told CBC News they've had to cancel medical appointments because ASL interpreters were unavailable.

Striking workers say the labour dispute is difficult for them on a personal basis as well.

Christie Reaume

Christie Reaume is a full time sign language interpreter with the Canadian Hearing Society and has been on strike since March 6, 2017. (Rob Heydari/CBC)

"There are many people that I work with that I would consider my friends," said Christie Reaume, a striking interpreter who has served as picket captain for CUPE 2073 in Windsor. "The interpreting community and the deaf community are very close ... to be on strike and to not see them is difficult to say the least." 

More than 200 CUPE 2073 staff at CHS have been without a contract for four years. The union contends that there have been no wage increases for workers through that period of time.

The Canadian Hearing Society counters that since March 2013, over 50% of unionized employees have received wage increases as a result of moving up through existing wage grids. 

CUPE 2073 picket outside Windsor CHS office

Members and supporters of CUPE 2073 picket outside the Windsor, Ont. office of the Canadian Hearing Society. (Rob Heydari/CBC)

Management says they are currently working with mediators from the provincial Ministry of Labour. 

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