Deaf community under stress as Canadian Hearing Society strike continues

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Tentative settlement between CUPE, Canadian Hearing Society

For many in the Toronto's Deaf community, workers with the Canadian Hearing Society provide essential support, from fixing hearing aids to interpreting at medical appointments, even helping to find employment. Since March, hundreds of CHS workers across the province have been on strike, and the effects are causing many clients to join staff on picket lines.

To understand the reason for the strike, and the toll it's taking both clients and staff, Metro Morning's Matt Galloway spoke with Stacey Connor. She is deaf and works as an employment consultant with CHS. She's also the president of the union, CUPE Local 2073. Galloway also spoke with Gary Malkowski, the vice-president of stakeholder and employer relations at CHS. He is also deaf. Both guests spoke with Galloway through an interpreter. This is a transcript of their conversation.

Matt Galloway: Why are you out on strike?

Stacey Connor: [through interpreter] Well, essentially, we're out for two reasons. We've not had any wage increase in the last four years, and they are now attacking our sick benefits.

MG: What has the strike been like? What is the mood like out on the picket lines?

SC: [through interpreter] We are very strong and showing a lot of solidarity and really holding strong together. It's actually been an interesting experience because we've been able to see each other a lot more than we usually do when we're working, and we're having a lot of members from the community and the Ontario Association of the Deaf showing up on our picket lines and keeping our spirits up and supporting us. It's been wonderful, actually.

MG: For people who don't know, what is it that you do? What are the services that you provide?

SC: [through interpreter] The Canadian Hearing Society serves four groups in the community: culturally deaf, oral deaf, deafened, and hard of hearing. And we're unique because we use the language of that community and they can come and get service in their own language. So we have audiology services, mental health services, interpreting services, employment services, many different services to the community, all social in nature. And we've always had a very strong relationship with the Deaf community and the Hard of Hearing community. There is no other service of its kind in this province. We are the only place that has that kind of cultural sensitivity and the ability to serve people in their first language.

MG: In the community, what do those services mean, in terms of how people live their lives? Give us an example of how the service that you would provide would help somebody on a daily basis.

SC: [through interpreter] Well, I can use interpreting services as an example. If a deaf person goes to the doctor, they need to be able to communicate with their doctor. If they're going to a job interview, they need to have an interpreter at their job interview to be able to communicate effectively. The hearing aid services that we provide, we can provide that service to people in a very comfortable way. We work with those community members in a way that's best for them. I'm also a community member, and I'm also one of those people who uses services, so my life has been impacted by this just as much as the community. That's my community. Our access to society largely depends on having access to these services.

MG: And so with this strike unfolding, what isn't happening for members of the community? It would sound as though they're being cut off.

SC: [through interpreter] We are missing those services right now, and it's because of what our employer is currently doing. Audism [spells aloud] is rampant in society. It's 2017, but we still face that marginalization and that kind of oppression in society. And we look to the Canadian Hearing Society to help break down those barriers.

MG: So what happens to your clients now who have to go to the doctor?

SC: [through interpreter] Well, from what I've been hearing from clients, without having access to interpreters, many people are rescheduling their appointments, or they may be privately reaching out to interpreters to see if they can get someone that way.

MG: But in the meantime, if they can't, then… I mean, I'm not questioning the right to be out on strike, obviously, but there is a huge gap in service that's not being filled right now because of the strike.

SC: [through interpreter] Well, the Canadian Hearing Society has been hiring replacement workers. The problem is they're not providing the same standard of service that we would provide. Some of the people that they are hiring to replace us don't know sign language, they don't have that relationship with the community that we have. When our clients come in, they know us and they trust us, and we're not there right now, and other people are serving them. And my concern is that when the strike is over, we don't know if those clients are going to come back to us. What they're experiencing right now might make them go elsewhere, and we're hoping that we can resolve this and get services back.

MG: Could you talk to me just a little bit about the relationship between the client and the interpreter? There has to be an incredible amount of trust if you are in a situation like a doctor's office, and you are relying on somebody to relay information. What is it like to place that trust in somebody, to ensure that you're getting what you actually need to get from that conversation?

SC: [through interpreter] Well, I can speak as a consumer. I work with interpreters a lot, and I do have to trust them, and just hope and believe that they're going to understand me. And sometimes if I don't know who the interpreter is, if I've never met them before, if they're a complete stranger to me, then I don't know if things are being conveyed accurately, if they are understanding me. And so I tend to engage with that interpreter more, as opposed to just being able to go in and have a comfortable conversation with my doctor, just trusting this is an interpreter that I know, I know they understand me, I know I'm getting the information accurately. So it does cause a little more stress on the consumer when we're working with people we're not familiar with.

MG: One of the things, just finally, that's happened over the course of this strike, is that we outside the community have learned a lot more about what the CHS does, and what those interpreters do. What do you think people should know about the work that you do, and the work as a client that you rely on?

SC: [through interpreter] The Canadian Hearing Society is a very unique organization. Because we have the cultural sensitivity and the language skills to work with those consumer groups, it does make us stand apart. If our clients were trying to get service from other agencies, they would not be able to provide the same level of service as we can. There really is no other place that can meet the needs of these consumer groups the way we do. In order for us to be able to really use the services, they have to be accessible to us, and that's why we keep stressing the importance of the Canadian Hearing Society remaining the social service agency that it has been. We cannot take that identity away. This is what the community wants, this is what the community needs, and that's what we want to get back to.

The following is a transcript of Matt Galloway's conversation with Gary Malkowski is the vice-president of stakeholder and employer relations at CHS.

MG: Why are your employees out on strike?

Gary Malkowski: [through interpreter] They have gone on strike. We were in negotiations, we put forth an author, and they made the decision to walk out and go on strike. We asked to continue to negotiate, and they still chose to move ahead with their strike. We're still waiting for them to respond to our latest offer.

MG: How are your clients being affected by this strike?

GM: [through interpreter] When we are at full capacity, we are running 25 offices across the province of Ontario; we are now running seven of our offices that we have open. We are focusing on priority and essential services, which are interpreting services that we receive requests from 8:00 AM to 8:00 PM. We are also providing essential services for counselling, and we are working in partnership with other organizations to support our consumers, as well. For audiology, we are doing hearing aid repair.

MG: If somebody has to go to see the doctor after 8:00 PM — you said that services are being provided between 8:00 AM and 8:00 PM — what happens to them?

GM: [through interpreter] We do have after-hours emergency interpreting services. So our daily operations in terms of receiving requests is from 8:00 AM to 8:00 PM, but our provision of service is offered at all hours.

MG: What aren't you providing? We heard earlier from somebody who is also a client in addition to being with the union, who said that without the services of the CHS, she could feel, members of the community feel cut off. So what services aren't you providing while the strike continues?

GM: [through interpreter] We are not providing our hearing healthcare services and counselling. But again, we are providing our interpreting services. We are focusing on the essential services and the emergency and the urgent pieces. So if there's an emergency, there's a doctor's appointment, we are providing those services at this time.

MG: If the services are so essential to the daily lives of your clients, though, there have to be services that aren't being provided. What should those clients make of the strike, and how are they being affected by the strike?

GM: [through interpreter] So we, of course, are providing what we can. In the last two weeks, we are providing the interpreting services, as I said. We have been able to provide many of the appointments and requests for medical and emergency services, most of them. And then we're also working with our mental health clients to make sure that we are able to meet their needs. Hearing care counselling, however, is one of the services that we are not offering at this point.

MG: Why are you not meeting with the union?

GM: [through interpreter] We are actively in negotiations right now, we are doing so through the Ministry of Labour's mediators, so we are active. We have engaged them, we are working with the mediators actively. Again, it was CUPE who walked out twice — so they walked out of the last negotiations — and they walked out again this time. So we are working with the mediators actively and pursuing negotiations in that way.

MG: Given how much people rely on the services that Canadian Hearing Society provides, do you think that that provides additional motivation to resolve this strike quickly?

GM: [through interpreter] Our priority is to maintain the services that the consumers need. They are at the heart of everything we do, and we want our employees back. We value them. We value their skills, their experience, their expertise. We want them to come back to work, and as I said, we have engaged the mediators to ask for this negotiation process to continue. Our priority is always the consumers in which we serve.

MG: One of the things that I just — we'll end on this — this is the same question that we asked Stacey from CUPE, is that one of the things that has come out of this is that we outside of the community, outside of the clients that you serve, have learned more about the Canadian Hearing Society. What else should we know, do you think, about what it is that you do and how important that is?

GM: [through interpreter] So we have a focus in a number of different areas. We provide counselling — so we provide counselling, we provide employment services, we offer mental health services, audiology, we have sign language services, we offer interpreters both in person and remote, we offer CART services, which is captioning. We know that the population is aging, and we are there to support them with our communication devices program, and then ASL education, as I mentioned.