Deaf fan denied captioning accommodation at Montreal Just for Laughs festival

·3 min read
Tom Willard, who also does stand-up comedy, says the technology is readily available to automatically transcribe performances for deaf or hard-of-hearing audience members. (Submitted by Tom Willard - image credit)
Tom Willard, who also does stand-up comedy, says the technology is readily available to automatically transcribe performances for deaf or hard-of-hearing audience members. (Submitted by Tom Willard - image credit)

A deaf man from New York says Montreal's Just for Laughs Festival denied his request for an accommodation despite asking for live captioning three months in advance.

Tom Willard, who is a stand-up comedian himself, planned to attend the festival for the first time, buying his ticket and booking his hotel, but without the captioning service, he was forced to cancel.

Just For Laughs says logistical and technical issues are to blame, but Willard said the technology is readily available and it's time for the annual comedy festival to join the modern era.

Nowadays, there is software that can listen to a person who is speaking and live feed what they say onto a screen so deaf people like Willard can simply read what is being said on stage.

While Just for Laughs offered an interpreter, that's not good enough, said Willard, who used the technology to be interviewed remotely by CBC in a video call. The software was able to transcribe the reporter's questions. Willard then read them and replied verbally.

"It's really hard to understand stand-up comedy through an interpreter," he said.

"It's like the world doesn't want us to come out and do things. It's weird."

Willard was born with the ability to hear but went deaf as he grew up, he said, and that's why he can speak but not hear. His stand-up routines include jokes about his condition but for Willard, accommodations are no laughing matter.

He was excited to attend the largest comedy festival in the world that, founded in 1983, happens to be only six hours away by car.

He said it feels like going to war to get accommodations and has filed a complaint with the Quebec government.

The situation is making Willard question whether he wants to get back on stage. He said it makes him feel like comedy isn't a place for him.

"We are committed to producing festivals which are open and accessible to all," said Just for Laughs in a statement.

The statement says Willard did request the live captioning in advance, but it wasn't possible.

"Unlike many other live events, our shows are unscripted which makes the programming of captioning more challenging," the statement said.

"We regret the disappointment that our inability to accommodate this request may have caused Mr. Willard and, at his request, we have already refunded his tickets. We will also be refunding his hotel accommodation as a goodwill gesture."

Submitted by Tom Willard
Submitted by Tom Willard

Heidy Wager is the executive director of Hear Entendre Québec, an English non-profit organization that helps people in Montreal who are deaf or hard of hearing. Remote live captioning can be done with automatic technology or a person who types it out, she said.

This type of service needs to be set up in advance, but it's possible for event organizers to offer the service, she said, noting her organization works with the community and event organizers to build awareness and help integrate accessibility.

"Everybody feels frustrated when they have barriers," Wager said. "But we need to come together as a community and strive to make it better."

Wager said her group has been studying and brainstorming ways to address the lack of accessibility in the performing arts.

When it comes to hearing loss, every person has different needs when it comes to accommodations, she explained.

"Some people will use captioning. Some people will read lips," she said, and others rely on sign-language interpreters.

"There's a lot of education that needs to be done in the community about how to properly accommodate somebody with an invisible disability like hearing loss."

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