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Aid for the hearing-impaired
Experimental high-tech and low-tech solutions for deaf Nunavummiut gaining momentum

Peter Worden
Northern News Services
Published Friday, May 17, 2013

Inuit sign language is on its way to being a lot more present in Nunavut.

NNSL photo/graphic

Pangnirtung printmaker Andrew Qappik paints one of many Inuit sign language picture cards May 3 at Uqqurmiut Centre. - Peter Worden/NNSL photo

Dr. Jamie MacDougall has travelled all over Nunavut documenting and raising awareness of Inuit sign language and has helped implement various "experimental" programs.

"It's definitely new. We're doing things that haven't been done elsewhere," he said. "We seem to be developing momentum here. It seems to be the right time."

MacDougall was recently in Pangnirtung and commissioned prominent local artists Andrew Qappik, Jolly Atagooyuk and Eena Angmarlik to paint colourful, helpful cards that depict Inuit sign language with English translations.

"They're not technological," said MacDougall, "but they generate interest and people seem to really like them. There are lots of kids who aren't deaf, they just like the cards. They learn a few signs just the same as the printed word it's a start."

MacDougall says he hopes to work more with the Department of Education, possibly introducing a workbook to school curriculum, and expects to see more work from people like Pang artist Kawtysie Kakee who is deaf and recorded her life's story in photos.

"In this next phase we're going to experiment with a lot of different multimedia things," he said.

With a small number of deaf people scattered across a large geographic area, MacDougall said it isn't practical to have dedicated Inuktitut and English sign language interpreters in every community all the time. As part of another pilot project, hearing-impaired people in six Nunavut communities will soon have the ability to communicate face-to-face via satellite videophones dedicated bandwidth. Iqaluit, Arviat, Baker Lake, Rankin Inlet, Pond Inlet and Arctic Bay will be part of a videoconferencing test project aimed at facilitating communication for the deaf in the territory, with Inuit sign language interpreters on both ends. Videophones will be loaned to deaf people in the six communities. The idea is based on the same principle as Skype, except it has more bandwidth, explained MacDougall.

"Deaf people have the right to a sign language interpreter not only in the health system but in courts and elsewhere and it's so hard to provide, but nine times out of 10 if you could do it remotely, you can provide the service," he said.

Currently interpreters are often brought up from the south at great cost. An interpreter must often do double-duty, both understanding Inuit sign language and being able to translate between English and Inuktitut.

"We're right on the brink of being able to do that so it's really quite exciting," said MacDougall.

In the legislative assembly May 7, Baker Lake MLA Moses Aupaluktuq praised the efforts of the MacDougall and those parties involved with the pilot project.

"I believe that one of the most important responsibilities that we have as members of the legislative assembly is to represent those people who have been previously marginalized and left without a voice," said Aupaluktuq.

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