Accessibility essential for Alberta’s COVID-19 updates: ‘We have no choice but to wait’

On Monday, an ASL/English interpreter was present during an Alberta Health COVID-19 update for the first time.

It’s a significant moment for the deaf and hard of hearing community, which had called on the government to provide an interpreter or live captioning during the updates.

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“It’s about accessibility,” said president of the Edmonton Association of the Deaf, Sarah Snively.

“Ever since the information was released about the pandemic, hearing individuals were kept informed by listening to what is being shared in real-time through all media outlets, while deaf people were left out.”

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Snively said many members of the community turned to updates out of B.C. or other provinces where an ASL/English interpreter was used.

“So deaf and HOH people would rather watch those other news outlets or conferences that provide accessibility to live ASL interpretation and live captioning.”

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She expressed the lack of communication created some anxiety or fear for Albertans who could not get updates in real-time.

“Every afternoon, there are updates and so most people tune in to watch. We have no choice but to wait until it’s over for others or social media to pass on what was said. If we go to certain places, will we be safe? What are the best ways to protect yourself?”

“We recognize the unique needs of Alberta’s deaf community and are locating a sign language interpreter for the media availabilities,” said Alberta Health’s Tom McMillan in a statement to Global News on Monday.

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“We thank the Albertans who have brought this to our attention. All Albertans deserve to have access to the information that is being shared and we will make sure that an interpreter is available as soon as possible.”

Snively was overjoyed to hear that an interpreter would be present at the briefing.

“Finally, we are seeing equal accessibility coming across Canada. I am so excited. If our access to information is not the same, we are missing out on a lot of information.”

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Newcomers to Edmonton are also facing communication barriers when it comes to novel coronavirus updates.

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“New information is coming out so quickly. Accessing information is a challenge for people who are learning the English language,” explained Ricki Justice with the Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers.

“We hear misinformation and we see some fear in our clients.”

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All language classes at the EMCN have been cancelled and the centre shut down for the week. It will reopen when it has “the proper health and safety measures in place.” For now, it is offering online classes and telephone counselling for those who need it.

“It’s really hard for people to keep up. They may be relying on other sources of information other than the primary source because it’s not in their language. They run the risk of getting misinformation.”

Clients are also feeling anxiety towards loved ones abroad.

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“Especially families in refugee camps.

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“Of course, social distancing is really hard in camps and access to supplies is hard on a regular day. People are worried about their friends and family members.”

Justice said the organization is looking for donations of technology to help families who may be in need of access to online information.

“We are open to hearing about any other creative ideas that community members have to help out,” Justice said. “We need to come together right now. Support our newcomers, our elderly, people who need financial support.

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“We need to stick together instead of dividing ourselves.”

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