For the first time in 20 years, Elke Kraemer-Tremblay can talk with her doctor, participate in staff meetings and speak with her son’s teachers in her own language.
The administrative clerk for Highways and Public Works was born deaf – her mother had German measles while pregnant. She cannot hear at all.
Until this September, there was no full-time American Sign Language interpreter in the Yukon. Anyone who did private interpreting did it on the side and was not always available.
“I’ve become accustomed to not having these services. After 20 years, you get used to it,” said Kraemer-Tremblay.
She’s tried teaching her co-workers ASL, and sometimes brings people to appointments to help her. Mainly, she writes notes to communicate.
Kraemer-Tremblay can speak, but not everyone can understand her. Reading lips also presents problems – no two people speak the same.
“Each person is like a new language,” she said. “It’s a lot of work.”
If a last-minute doctor’s appointment came up, “there were really no options for me,” she said.
The Yukon government hired Amanda Smith as a sign-language interpreter for a two-year pilot project funded by the territorial and federal governments. Her services are available to any deaf person, free of charge, and there is no application process.
“We’re trying to make the program as broad as we possibly can within the constraints of only having one Amanda,” said Jon Breen, manager of disability employment at the public service commission.
As far as he knows, the Yukon is the only government in Canada – at any level – to have a full-time ASL interpreter on staff, he said. Other jurisdictions often have contracts with not-for-profits to provide services like medical interpreting, he said.
Private interpreters can charge between $30 and $80 an hour, said Smith.
Kraemer-Tremblay never had to pay when she used an interpreter, she said. Different government departments would pay for interpreting in different situations, but figuring out where the funding would come from each time was difficult, she said. For example, if she needed an interpreter to go with her to the doctor’s, that would be Health and Social Services, but if she needed to speak with her son’s teacher, an interpreter would be paid for by Education, she said.
Yukon’s Deaf community has wanted an interpreter for years, she said.
For instance, this was the first time Kraemer-Tremblay has ever been able to do an interview with the media. Smith interpreted for the News and later, clarifications were communicated via text messaging.
An international conference on employment and disability a couple of years ago in Whitehorse really highlighted the issue, said Breen. About 11-and-a-half per cent of Yukon government employees identify as having a disability, he said. As of 2006, 13 to 14 per cent of working-age Yukoners identified as having a disability, he added.
A working group, including members of the Deaf community, determined what credentials an interpreter would need.
Smith’s interest in the Deaf community was spurred by childhood meningitis, which can cause hearing loss. She ultimately didn’t lose her own hearing, but she lived with an all-deaf family for a week as a teenager and began learning sign language. She studied ASL in Ontario and British Columbia and is a member of the Association of Visual Language Interpreters of Canada, the country’s only certifying body for ASL-English interpreters. Smith is also certified to do medical interpreting. Providing emergency medical services is a top priority, said Breen.
Having an interpreter means Kraemer-Tremblay can access training to be a better employee, or attend mayoral and city council candidate debates to be a more informed citizen.
It also makes parenting a little less stressful.
Kraemer-Tremblay’s husband, who is French-speaking, is also deaf. Their son, Matthew, interprets for them. He’s their only child. Kraemer-Tremblay was raised in Saskatchewan. She learned to speak English so she could interpret for her German parents. She began learning ASL as a teenager and didn’t use an interpreter until studying to be a dental lab technician in Edmonton.
When Smith’s around, Matthew has to sit on his hands because he’s so used to interpreting, said Kraemer-Tremblay.
At times, she’s felt like other families pity them and think Matthew is misunderstood, she said.
“Things are a lot different in our household than in other people’s households,” she said. Matthew can play his music loudly and sometimes has to remind his parents to turn off the taps because they can’t hear the water running.
Explaining these cultural differences is difficult without an interpreter, she said. Now, Kraemer-Tremblay hopes to do presentations in her son’s school about Deaf culture.
But she’s still getting used to having Smith around.
“Everything’s quite new,” said Kraemer-Tremblay.
But there’s one place she knows she will call on Smith to help out.
She’s looking forward to finally being able to chat with the other parents in the locker room after her son’s hockey games.
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