Nfld. & Labrador·Access Denied

Deaf in N.L.? Good luck calling 911 or getting an interpreter

They can be the not-so-obvious people with disabilities, but advocates in Newfoundland and Labrador say their problems are just as important, and small changes could have a meaningful impact.

Advocates for hard of hearing, people with autism say attitude and design changes could help

Myles Murphy, who is with the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of the Deaf, uses American Sign Language to communicate. (Mark Cumby/CBC)

They can be the not-so-obvious groups of people with disabilities, but advocates in Newfoundland and Labrador say their problems are just as important, and some small changes to services and attitudes could have a meaningful impact.

For people who are deaf, communication is a major problem, especially in an emergency, says the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of the Deaf.

Executive director Myles Murphy says the province is the only one in Canada without a 911 emergency system set up for deaf people.

"It's something that we need to have," he told CBC News through an American Sign Language interpreter.

Need for more ASL interpreters

Those interpreters, or the lack of them, is another issue.

"We have over 600 deaf people living in the entire province … and we're depending on four interpreters to service all of the community," Murphy said.

Heather Crane is an American Sign Language interpreter. There are only four working full time in the province. (CBC)

They are located in St. John's, and it can often take two to three days to book their services.

Murphy said deaf people sometimes don't even bother to call, because they know how busy the interpreters are — so they'll depend on family members instead.

We have over 600 deaf people living in the entire province ... and we're depending on four interpreters.- Myles Murphy

Murphy shared a story about a man on Newfoundland's west coast who had a medical emergency, but no interpreter was available.

When he went to the hospital, he used Skype to communicate with his daughter on the opposite side of the island.

"His daughter could communicate with him through the iPad, and his daughter could voice to the doctor in the office," Murphy said.

Left out in a crowd

Communication is also a problem for people who are hard of hearing.

Leon Mills, executive director of the provincial branch of the Canadian Hard of Hearing Association, says people who are hard of hearing are distinct from those who are deaf, but they're often lumped together.

Hard-of-hearing people use hearing-assisted technology, like hearing aids and cochlear implants, but it doesn't mean they have perfect hearing — a common misconception.

Hearing aids can help, but don't assume people using them can hear perfectly. (Guillermo Arias/Associated Press)

"We have to focus really intently on a conversation to try to grasp what's being said," he explained. 

"Sometimes, if you miss a key word or a couple of words in a sentence, you're still trying to think about what that is, and the other person is still talking, and then you've lost the whole thread of the conversation."

Mills said most public facilities in Newfoundland and Labrador, such as churches, meeting halls, and movie theatres, are not hearing-accessible.

Leon Mills says most people don't realize the frustration that a hard of hearing person lives with. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

"A lot of people," he said, "choose not to go to places like that because they can't participate."

But Mills said listening systems could be installed for about $2,500 to $3,000 each.

"We actually have a … grants program, that will assist with that. Generally we go 50/50 on the cost."

Changing attitudes

Small accommodations could also go a long way for people with autism.

"For people who experience hypersensitivity — where senses are a little bit more extreme — the world can be really overwhelming," said Tess Hemeon, manager of community engagement with the Autism Society of Newfoundland and Labrador. 

Tess Hemeon of the Autism Society of Newfoundland and Labrador says the world can be overwhelming for someone with hypersensitivity. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

"Think about walking through the Avalon Mall. That would be intense — there's a lot of people everywhere, the lights are really bright, the radio is probably playing, so it can really cause a lot of anxiety, a lot of discomfort, and for some people, it can actually feel like physical pain."

Hemeon said you may see someone with autism reacting to their physical environment (what some refer to as a "meltdown"), with high anxiety, moving around a lot, or squeezing a stress ball.

It can really cause a lot of anxiety, a lot of discomfort, and for some people, it can actually feel like physical pain.- Tess Hemeon

"That might make us uncomfortable, but the thing you need to keep in mind is that they're having a very hard time in their environment," she said. 

"That's something we're really trying to draw attention to … [being] more sympathetic to that experience for people with autism."

Accommodations to help everyone

Hemeon said there are some simple accommodations that could have a big impact, such as neutral paint colour and different lighting.

"Fluorescent lighting can be detrimental to someone's experience in the workplace or in public," she said. 

"Having natural lighting, softer lighting, or the option to change between, because everyone is a little bit different."

Sound baffles, panels on ceilings or walls to muffle sound, are installed at the Autism Society's Pantry Cafe. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

Hemeon said sound can also have an effect. She said sound baffles — panels on ceilings or walls that muffle sounds that could bounce around hard floors and walls — can help people on the spectrum feel more comfortable.

She said quiet spaces are also helpful.

"A lot of the things that we describe as being beneficial in universal design for people with autism are also beneficial for everyone," Hemeon said.

"When I travel to somewhere, and I'm on a conference, and I'm doing a day of meetings, and it's a lot interacting, and maybe I might enjoy sitting down in quiet space and just taking a deep breath."

Stay tuned for ongoing coverage of accessibility issues and solutions this week online, on CBC Television's Here & Now, and on CBC Radio One.


Jen White

CBC News

Jen White is a reporter and producer with CBC News in St. John's, and the host of the CBC podcast One in Six. You can reach her at

With files from Ramona Dearing