Shut out: Lack of sign language at concerts frustrates deaf Canadians

Deaf music fans in Canada say insufficient laws and lack of support leave them shut out when their favourite artists come to town.

While videos of music interpreters go viral in the U.S., deaf music fans in Canada wait for change

Gaitrie lost her hearing at the age of nine months. But like many deaf and hearing-impaired Canadians, she has other ways to enjoy music. (Eli Glasner)

Gaitrie Persaud didn't think she could go see Jay Z perform in Toronto next week — not because she's deaf but because she didn't know if the venue would provide the sign language interpreter she requires. 

Persaud, 31, lost her hearing at the age of nine months. But like many deaf and hard of hearing Canadians, she and her friends find ways to enjoy music. On a recent afternoon in Rexdale, in Toronto's west end, she and two friends who are also hard of hearing — Sidra Khan, 24, and Mellisa Casuga, 36 — push back the coffee table so they can dance along to Rihanna and Jay Z's Talk That Talk

"It feels like my body has this urgency to move even though I can't hear," Persaud said.

It feels like my body has this urgency to move even though I can't hear.- Gaitrie Persaud

"I rely on the beats and vibrations. It's like an electrical current going through my body."

On the TV, a captioned YouTube video of the song is blasting, the volume cranked so Persaud and her friends can feel the vibrations through the floor. As the lyrics scroll by, their hands are a flurry of gestures as they use American Sign Language (ASL) to sing along in their own way.

Deaf music fans Mellisa Casuga, left, Sidra Khan, centre, and Persaud dance to the vibrations of a captioned Rihanna/Jay Z video. (Eli Glasner)

A Statistics Canada study in 2011 found that nearly 25,000 people in Canada use sign language at home. The Canadian Association of the Deaf (CAD) estimates the number of people who are "culturally deaf" — whose first native language is a signed language and who are part of the deaf community — is as high as 357,000. But when they want to go see their favourite artists perform, they can feel shut out. 

"I bought a ticket for a Sean Paul concert and asked the producers if they would provide interpreting services because there was seven of us," Persaud told CBC News. "I said, 'You would make a lot of money, it's a big event.' They said no, you can just stand there and feel the beat."

In Canada, it's uncommon for venues to provide sign language services. Sometimes they turn down explicit requests, as was the case over the summer in Montreal.

But in the United States, sign language services at concerts and festival is quite common. There, interpreters who specialize in music have found a following online as the videos of their enthusiastic interpretations go viral.

Prepping to interpret an artist, whether it's pop singer Meghan Trainor or hip-hop band Wu-Tang Clan, takes months of work studying lyrics and set lists. 

"You just want to make sure that you're providing the most authentic interpretation you can," interpreter Holly Maniatt said in an interview with CBC Radio's q. "You want to embody what's happening in terms of the music and the vibe and to be all of that so it becomes visually accessible to the people you're interpreting for."

As more artists reach out to deaf music fans, some are even hiring their own interpreters. Chance the Rapper tours regularly with Matthew Maxey, and recorded an invitation encouraging fans to come to an ASL-supported show in Tampa.

The American advantage

Gaitrie experienced that kind of support when she attended college in Rochester, N.Y. Being deaf in the U.S. is a dramatically different experience, she says.

"They have a strong deaf culture presence," she said. "It's so colourful, and it's all about 'You can do it. You can make your dreams come true.'"

The deaf community in the U.S. has another advantage: the Americans With Disabilities Act, which has been in place since 1990. The ADA requires that states, local governments, businesses and non-profit organizations be able to communicate effectively with people who have "communication disabilities." 

The failure to provide services is considered discrimination, and there are penalties for non-compliance.

In Canada, there is no federal legislation regarding disabilities but rather a patchwork provincial laws. 

The Trudeau government plans to introduce long-awaited accessibility legislation in the spring of 2018. But asked whether it would mandate sign language in public venues, Jane Almeida, communications director for Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities Kent Hehr, told CBC News the new legislation will apply only to "areas under the control of federal government." 

Which leaves music fans such as Persaud to the whims of provincial or municipal laws, either hoping venues will provide interpreters of their own volition or filing a human rights complaints and waiting to see the results. 

Other possible solutions 

But making concerts more accessible for deaf music fans isn't just about inclusion, it's also a missed opportunity, says Casuga. "I'm telling you, if they provided an interpreter, deaf people would come in droves," she said.

And there are other ways to encourage accessibility.

The CAD has been advocating for  Canada to recognize ASL and LSQ (the Quebec equivalent to American Sign Language) as official languages, the way Brazil, New Zealand, Malta and other countries have done.

Others are exploring technological solutions to help deaf people experience music. The Somato Cherry is a small handheld device that transmits vibrations of music to the user's hands.

Somato Cherry: headphones for the hands

6 years ago
Duration 1:19
CBC's Eli Glasner tries the Somato Cherry, a new handheld device that translates music into tactile sensations

The device's inventor, Toronto's Maria Karam, says the goal is the pull out all the tactile elements of music. Future models of the Somato could pair with Bluetooth devices to help deaf people experience audio in a different way. 

But until better options are widely available, music fans need interpreters at concerts. And after CBC News contacted the Air Canada Centre, where Jay-Z is scheduled to play, the facility agreed to help with seating and an interpreter for Persaud and nine of her deaf friends.


Eli Glasner

Senior entertainment reporter

Eli Glasner is the senior entertainment reporter and screentime columnist for CBC News. Covering culture has taken him from the northern tip of Moosonee Ontario to the Oscars and beyond.