Statistics on Deaf Canadians

The issue
Statistics on Deaf Canadians are hard to collect and no two organizations seem to agree on the numbers involved.

Our positlion:
The Canadian Association of the Deaf – Association des Sourds du Canada uses the traditional “one in ten” formula for estimating statistics, with strong disclaimers. This formula concludes that there are 357,000 culturally Deaf Canadians and 3.21 million hard of hearing Canadians.

It is the opinion of the Canadian Association of the Deaf – Association des Sourds du Canada that no fully credible census of Deaf, deafened, and hard of hearing people has ever been conducted in Canada.

One official survey, the 1991 Health and Activities Limitations Survey (HALS), resulted in a report that stated that one out of every 25 Canadians (1:25) has “impaired hearing”, a total of 1,022,220. A subsequent survey reported the ratio at 1:15 for a total of 2,000,000. And a third survey came up with two ratios: a 1:8 ratio (3,875,000 people) and a 1:22 ratio (1,409,090 people). Which is right? How do we judge the credibility of any statistic on Deaf Canadians?

The Canada Census and PALS (Participation and Activities Limitations Survey, successor to HALS) are not designed with Deaf people in mind. The use of written questions laid out like school examination papers is intimidating and confusing to Deaf people whose first language is visual and gestural. The Census is available in English or French but not in Sign language and not in video format, two methods that would make it accessible and comfortable for Deaf people.

Statistics Canada, which manages the data from the Census, claims to use plain language in its forms. It may be plain to someone fluent in English/French, but not to someone to whom these are second languages. Consider this convoluted question from the 2001 PALS: “Does a physical condition or mental condition or health problem reduce the amount or the kind of activity you can do in other activities, for example transportation or leisure?” Does hearing loss even qualify as “a physical condition”? What “activities” are involved in “transportation or leisure”? What is meant by a “reduction” in the “amount” of “activity” we can do? Playing tennis at age 50 involves a “reduction” in the “amount” of “activity” relative to playing tennis at age 25 — you just cannot move as fast or hit the ball as hard as you did a quarter-century ago. Does that mean every 50-year-old person qualifies as “disabled”?

Questions designed to identify persons with disabilities tend to eliminate Deaf people. For example, asking if we “have difficulty hearing” often provokes the response, “No, we just don’t hear!” And asking if we “have difficulty communicating with others” gets the reply, “No, my Deaf friends and I have no problem communicating because we all use Sign!” These replies may be true, but they result in Deaf people being classified as “hearing” and thereby eliminated from statistics on deafness. The terminology used in these questions thus sabotages the purpose of the questions.

Questions designed to enumerate the number of technical devices in use in Canada, such as videophones, are focussed only on Deaf people. This leads to inaccurate data. A family with hearing parents who have purchased devices for their Deaf children may not be included in the survey. Friends of the Deaf, such as interpreters, may have such devices in their household in order to accommodate the needs of their friends and/or professional clients; but again, these non-Deaf people would not be included in the survey.

The 1996 Census resulted in statistics about Canadians who claimed to “know” Sign language. Even Statistics Canada has emphasized that this data has nothing to do with the number of Deaf people in Canada, and that it makes no attempt to distinguish between a hearing person who took one class in fingerspelling and a Deaf person whose first language from birth is Sign. Unfortunately, any statistic released by Statistics Canada literally has the stamp of official authority and is taken as accurate by everyone.

Attempts in the surveys to distinguish between deaf, deafened, and hard of hearing people use as a measure the ability or inability to hear within the context of “conversation with one person” and “group conversation”, rendering the whole exercise meaningless to all three groups. In fact, by this measure, Deaf people could qualify as the “most hearing” of the three categories, because their conversations (whether with one person or with groups) are usually with other Deaf people in Sign language, resulting in problem-free communication!

The Canadian Association of the Deaf – Association des Sourds du Canada believes that another of the roots of the difficulty with the statistics is that Canada Census and HALS/PALS included only those people who self-identified as having a hearing “disability” which required attention (in the form of hearing aids, for example). These criteria effectively eliminate a huge part of the D/deaf and hard of hearing populace which for one reason or another refuses to identify itself as such; it eliminates those who, like the culturally Deaf, do not view themselves as disabled by the absence of hearing; and it eliminates those, both Deaf and hard of hearing, who do not seek medical/technological “attention” for their hearing loss.

Our concerns are important, not just because statistics from the Census are quoted by everyone as if they were irreproachably accurate, but also because the statistics are used by governments and researchers to help them set policy on social security, taxation, education, and medical care, among other subjects. Corporations have used these statistics in human rights hearings to defend themselves against allegations of discrimination in services for Deaf people — i.e., the Deaf community is “too small” and therefore providing equality of access to them is cost-ineffective to the point of being an “undue hardship”.

The CAD-ASC filed a human rights complaint against Statistics Canada on all of these matters in 2008. A resolution was achieved in 2009 that would have resulted in greatly improved accuracy in deafness-related statistics, as well as increased accessibility of information from the agency. Unfortunately, before the agreement could be fully implemented, the federal government eliminated both the “long form” Canada Census and the PALS, effectively destroying all hopes of ever obtaining reasonably accurate statistics about disability in Canada.

So, what statistic does the CAD-ASC cite when asked how many Deaf people live in Canada? We continue to follow the standard comparison model between Canada and the United States, which assumes that statistics for Canada will be one-tenth of statistics for the U.S. (based on the fact that Canada has one-tenth the population of the U.S.) By this measure, Canada in the year 2015 would have roughly 3.57 million people with some degree of hearing loss. Of those 3.57 million people, one-tenth or roughly 357,000 would be culturally and linguistically Deaf.

With strong disclaimers as to the dependability and accuracy of any data, then, the Canadian Association of the Deaf – Association des Sourds du Canada considers that there are approximately 357,000 profoundly deaf and deafened Canadians and possibly 3.21 million hard of hearing Canadians.


The Canadian Association of the Deaf – Association des Sourds du Canada
606 – 251 Bank Street
Ottawa, ON K2P 1X3
(613) 565-2882