As hundreds of Canadian Hearing Society workers strike across the province, people who are deaf or hard of hearing are left without some of the counselling and audiology services they rely on.
Negotiations between management and the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) broke down last Sunday and workers in Ottawa have been walking the picket line since early Monday.
"I feel kind of angry about it, kind of depressed about it," said Kimberley Blomquist, through an American Sign Language interpreter. "I really need the services. And I needed it this week."
Blomquist received a letter in the mail saying her counselling appointment for this week had been cancelled, but she came to the office in Old Ottawa South anyway.
Now, she's pushing her walker on the picket line to support the interpreters, rather than speaking to a counsellor about her income taxes.
Some essential services still offered
Blomquist, 52, said she's been using Canadian Hearing Society services since she was 20 years old.
With her family far away in New Brunswick and elsewhere in Ontario, Blomquist has relied on the agency for a variety of services including mental health counselling.
Now, she's concerned the interpreter she booked for an appointment later this month could be cancelled.
"It's a very important appointment for an MRI," she said. "I don't want to see that cancelled."
While the strike is ongoing, the Canadian Hearing Society said non-unionized managers are offering some essential services in the office, including:
- Interpretation for medical and counselling appointments, prioritized based on need.
- Critical employment services, where clients risk losing their jobs.
- Basic hearing aid repair.
Other services likely won't be available, including interpretation that is not deemed essential and some audiology services, such as hearing tests and speech-language pathology appointments.
Without services, 'we really suffer'
On Friday, Monica Elaine Campbell brought pickets warm coffee and snacks.
A former local and provincial board member for the society, Campbell said the services the Canadian Hearing Society provides are "very crucial."
"They're very, very important to the clients and when we don't have access to those services, we really suffer," she said.
To imagine the full significance of these services, Campbell said one need only think what it's like for people who are deaf and hard of hearing to arrive at the hospital.
"If the interpretation services are not available, can you imagine what it would be like?"
Campbell is deaf and communicates by reading lips, but using that method means she only understands about 30 per cent of what's said — or even less when she's not feeling well.
"I tend to miss a word here and there, and maybe some crucial information," she said.
Many workers are clients themselves
Barbara Wilker-Frey, a national CUPE representative, said the workers are "the link, sometimes the only link" between people who are deaf or hard of hearing and the services they rely on.
She said workers don't need to be reminded of the effect the strike is having on clients, because about 40 per cent of them are deaf or hard of hearing themselves.
"So, they know exactly what is happening. And, in fact, they are doubly impacted, because now they can't access the services and they also can't provide those same services."
Wilker-Frey said there are two sticking points to negotiations — a "modest" wage increase, retroactive to the past four years, and a proposed change that would do away with banked sick days and replace the system with a new short-term disability program.
"It's a huge, huge attack," she said, adding that the union is waiting on management to return to the negotiating table.
Management says offer 'still on the table'
Gary Malkowski, a vice president of the Canadian Hearing Society and a negotiator, said management also wants to return to mediation with the team supplied by the Ontario Ministry of Labour.
The agency is waiting on CUPE to provide a response to their latest offer, he said.
"Our schedule and our calendars are wide open and we're ready to negotiate with CUPE at any point," said Malkowski — who is deaf — through an interpretor.
"Our offer is still on the table. It was extremely sustainable."
In the meantime, Malkowski said Blomquist or anyone who feels they aren't getting the services they need should call the Canadian Hearing Society, who will "triage" any requests.