10 deaf photographers will soon start a class in photography – after more than five years of struggling to get funding for an interpreter so they would be allowed in the classroom.

More than five years ago, photographer Vanecia Austria applied to take a course at Prairieview School of Photography.

“It’s always been my dream. I’ve always wanted to be a professional photographer,” said Austria. “I’ve been very impressed with their photography, and I’ve been very inspired about what that course could provide.”

The 32-year-old woman had been patiently building her own photography business for years and teaching herself as much as she could.

Austria, who is deaf, was shocked when her application was denied -- twice.

“They were a small business, and they couldn’t support the interpreting fees,” she said. “I thought, ‘Wow.’ My goal at that point just crashed. It came to an abrupt halt.”

The interpreting fees were more than $3,000 for an eight-week course. That’s in addition to tuition.

And Austria found out she wasn’t alone.

Local photographer Dana Zimmer also wanted in.

“My work was really impacting people because I’m obviously a visual person. I use my eyes. I might see things that other people don’t,” she said. “Really the non-deaf world doesn’t know how to cover the interpreting cost, so if I want to take a course then there’s another barrier.”

Other deaf photographers were faced with the same problem.

“We all wanted to get in and go and take the training at Prairieview, but we didn’t have any access or anyone who could help us,” said Austria.

Local artist steps in

For five years, Austria applied for everything she could from government grants to Manitoba Student Aid but was turned down because she didn’t qualify.

Then she took an entrepreneurship course with local artist Heather Bishop who said she would help the girls find the funding – no matter what.

“I started researching anywhere there was funding for interpreters for the deaf in the government,” said Bishop. “The way I got it was just by begging, basically. I just called some people I knew in the government and said … ‘I have some students who would really like this training, what can we do?’” Employment Manitoba came through with a one-time grant after seeing the women’s business plan.

Jobs and Employment Minister Theresa Oswald said the government understood the different needs in this case meant coming up with a new solution.

“It is not in any way a one-size-fits-all shop,” said Oswald. “We have to work really hard to ensure that those people that are not employed, because so many Manitobans are, are getting the supports and the skill development that they need.”

Oswald said it came down to an impressive business plan and some imagination from the people at Employment Manitoba to make the grant work.

Once the funding was secured, eight other deaf students signed up immediately, filling the class.

“Prairieview was shocked. It was obvious then that they had the proof that there were many of us that wanted that type of training,” said Austria. “It has been a struggle. It’s been tough. What we’ve tried to do, my husband and I and my friend Dana Zimmer, We’ve just tried to fight and not give up.”

The eight-week course begins in April.

Deaf artists gather in the Exchange District

For now, the women are focused on talking with other deaf artists and spreading the word about the need for funding. Thursday night, the Manitoba Cultural Society of the Deaf is holding an open house in the Exchange District, with the goal of linking artists with funders.

“It’s a meeting to let the deaf community know that its back in business,” said Bishop. “Through the arts, the deaf will have the voice that they have not had, and by supporting the arts and deaf artists, what you're beginning to do is break down the barriers.”

The group was dormant for years, but after Bishop and the women realized their problem was shared throughout the community, it was kicked into gear again.

“I think in the future what we will hope is that people realize that deaf people need access and in order to have access they’re going to need interpretive services," said Zimmer.

All interpreting services for this interview were provided courtesy of Winnipeg's E-Quality Communication Centre Of Excellence.