Deaf communities across Canada have been impacted by the rapid spread of COVID-19 and its effect on Canadian healthcare systems. The pandemic has highlighted problems with Deaf people’s access to information and public services, including education.
Across Canada, Deaf and hard of hearing children and youth lack access to quality education in sign language (American Sign Language, Langue des signes québécoise, Indigenous sign languages, tactile sign languages, and other sign languages used by deaf communities in Canada). Parents of Deaf children also lack access to comprehensive, publicly funded sign language courses to support parents’ learning of sign language and communication within families.
Lack of appropriate sign language services for Deaf children and their families causes language deprivation, which has a direct effect on education for Deaf children. Language deprivation is lack of full access to a natural sign language during approximately the first five years of life.[i] Deaf children and youth who have been deprived of language during early childhood have ongoing learning needs that must be addressed by educators, governments, and service providers.
Canada has signed and ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). The CRPD calls on countries to provide education to Deaf children in sign language in order to maximize academic and social development. Canada has also signed and ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). The CRC calls on countries to ensure that children with disabilities have access to education so that children achieve the fullest possible development.
However, in most provinces and territories, governments and schools do not meet their obligations to Deaf children and youth under the CRPD or CRC. This is made apparent by provincial human rights complaints by parents of Deaf children and reports from child advocates and human rights commissions across Canada.[ii][iii][iv][v][vi][vii]
Due to the pandemic, every province and territory has closed its K-12 school systems. While some provinces provide online learning opportunities, unless a qualified teacher who is proficient in sign language is available, these are often not accessible to Deaf children and youth. The situation is worsened by the frequent absence of captioning and qualified sign language interpreters in online classes and meetings.
Most online materials are not designed to meet the visual learning needs of deaf children and youth. Simply recruiting a sign language interpreter to interpret online learning materials can present further barriers. Often, it falls upon teachers to redevelop online course materials from school boards or education ministries to meet deaf learners’ needs. Online materials should include visual content, demonstrations, and other pedagogical innovations designed for deaf learners.
The CRPD calls on countries to provide equal access to postsecondary education, vocational training, and adult education. During the pandemic, language and literacy classes for deaf adults have closed, and learners have variable access to online learning opportunities and technology.
The move to online learning by postsecondary institutions has also created inequities for Deaf students due to lack of equal access to learning materials and opportunities. Online classes and meetings can present barriers for deaf postsecondary students. Access for deaf learners must be supported by appropriate pedagogy that addresses their visual learning needs.
Both the CRPD and CRC call on countries to provide parents of Deaf children with services that support parenting duties. These services include early intervention to prevent further disabilities, such as those caused by language deprivation. However, most provinces and territories do not provide comprehensive support for parents’ and young Deaf children’s sign language learning or access to early childhood education and care. Recently, the government of British Columbia announced funding cuts to early intervention for deaf children, including the closure of the province’s only preschool that provides instruction in American Sign Language. [viii]
During the pandemic, Deaf children may be further isolated at home and lack access to communication. Deaf children are also at significantly greater risk for abuse and exploitation. [ix]
As the national association representing Deaf people in Canada, the CAD-ASC is an Ordinary Member of the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD). The WFD has issued a Joint Statement Responding to the Safeguarding and Protection Needs of Deaf Children and Youth During the COVID-19 Pandemic [x] and a Statement and Guidelines on Best Practice for Access to Higher Education for Deaf Students During the COVID-19 Pandemic. [xi]
The CAD-ASC calls on Canadian and provincial and territorial governments to do the following:
[i] Hall, W.C., Levin, L.L., & Anderson, M.L. (2017). Language deprivation syndrome: A possible neurodevelopmental disorder with sociocultural origins. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 52, 761-776. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00127-017-1351-7
[ii] CBC News. (2019, September 6). Parent says school district failed her deaf son by hiring unqualified teacher. CBC News. Retrieved November 7, 2019 from https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/newfoundland-labrador/nlesd-school-deaf-student-1.5272898
[iii] Lord, R. (2019, November 2). “They are hurting him”: Newfoundland family fights for education equality. Global News. Retrieved November 4, 2019 from https://globalnews.ca/news/6113747/ewfoundland-human-rights-complaint/
[iv] McKenzie-Sutter, H. (2019, October 29). N.L. father says review of services for deaf children must include families. CTV News. Retrieved November 4, 2019 from https://www.ctvnews.ca/canada/n-l-father-says-review-of-services-for-deaf-children-must-include-families-1.4660089
[v] Langenegger, S. (2016, June 15). Youth justice system “failed” late Sask. teen with hearing disability who tried gesturing severity of illness. CBC News. Retrieved November 1, 2019 from https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/saskatchewan/advocate-says-sask-teenager-failed-by-youth-justice-system-1.3636392
[vi] Pringle, B. (2016). The silent world of Jordan: Special investigation report. Regina, SK: Saskatchewan Advocate for Children and Youth. Retrieved November 25, 2019 from https://www.saskadvocate.ca/sites/default/files/u12/The%20Silent%20World%20of%20Jordan%20Public%20Report%20June%2015%202016.pdf
[vii] Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission. (2016). Access and equality for Deaf, deaf, and hard of hearing people: A report to stakeholders. Retrieved November 25, 2019 from https://saskatchewanhumanrights.ca/pub/documents/news/2016/20160512_SHRC_DdHoH_Report.pdf
[viii] Raghem, I., & Steacy, L. (2020, April 30). “She came to life in that preschool”: Parents rally to save Lower Mainland’s only preschool for deaf children. City News 1130. Retrieved from https://www.citynews1130.com/2020/04/30/she-came-to-life-in-that-preschool-parents-rally-to-save-lower-mainlands-only-preschool-for-deaf-children/
[ix] Humphries, T., Kushalnagar, P., Mathur, G., Napoli, DJ, Padden, C., Rathmann, C., & Smith, S. (2016). Language choices for deaf infants: Advice for parents regarding sign languages. Clinical Pediatrics, 55(6), 513–7. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0009922815616891