(CORRECTED) If you’re deaf, don’t call the Toronto police or fire departments and expect to be able to communicate, unless you can actually speak and hear. Neither department has a plan to accommodate deaf people.


  1. A Toronto family (deaf parents, hearing kids) suffered a tragic fire. Toronto police and fire never called an interpreter; the fire department patted itself on the back that a fireman showed up who had minimal pidgin knowledge of ASL.

  2. A deaf man was arrested during the G20 and denied access to interpreters who were readily available. Interpreters didn’t show up to two of his court dates but eventually did at another hearing, where charges were dropped. Under §14 of the Charter, interpreters must be provided in court. There were no other interpreters at any time in the arrest or judicial process, reports held.

Toronto Police spokesperson Mark Pugash did not respond to my request for comment. But, many days later, Wendy Drummond of Pugash’s department disingenuously wrote back to ask if I still had a question. Of course I do, I told her, and heard nothing back. Toronto Police played games and refused to answer easy questions about their policies in dealing with deaf people. (If they exist.)

Toronto Fire didn’t respond at all.

I argue that both organizations, and indeed the entire public sector, have an affirmative duty to provide at the very least interpreters for deaf users of sign language. The Eldridge case, decided by the Supreme Court of Canada almost 20 years ago, held that hospitals have such an obligation. I don’t see much of a difference in application between a hospital and a fire or crime scene.

No matter how you slice it, though, what we have here is a systemic, and now known, denial of the Charter and other rights of deaf people by the two government departments most implicated in life-and-death crises – police and fire. Toronto Police and Toronto Fire put deaf people at risk because they have no procedures in place to communicate with them, I hold.

This sounds like a great subject for journalists to explore

I certainly ran that idea by the writers of both the articles cited above; only one responded. That is just as well, because the other writer, Wendy Gillis of the Star, covered the deaf-family case so atrociously it bordered on professional misconduct – calling the parents deaf-mute (later corrected online); relying on a teenage son to interpret; sensationalistically insisting that the parents’ inability to “scream” was somehow relevant; and refusing to follow obvious leads, like the family’s lack of audio-visual fire alarms and an evacuation plan and the fire department’s inability to communicate with them. I saw a CBC TV segment that also failed to follow those leads and induced that same (traumatized?) minor child to act as interpreter. The standard of coverage was low, but Gillis added insult to injury.

I’ve been working on this issue since December and have taken it as far as I can on a budget of nil. I presume the mainstream media, which can afford to investigate this issue properly, will simply ignore it until somebody dies, at which time the media will blame the victim for being “mute” and unable to “scream.”


Wendy Gillis wrote in to say she too believes police and fire departments’ inability to communicate with deaf people is a story with legs and that I shouldn’t have gotten any other impression. She also notes that the references to screaming were in heds (typically written by editors, and fungible) and were not in body copy. True – and her piece quotes one of the hearing kids: “We were trying to yell that we were OK, but no one could hear.” It seems that blame for an overreliance on yelling and screaming applies to editors and a source, not Gillis.

I appreciate the correction.

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2012.02.12 15:24. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:

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None. I quit.

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