Access to Justice for Deaf Persons in Nunavut: Focus on Signed Languages



3.1 Telephone survey

A telephone survey was conducted to obtain preliminary estimates of the numbers of deaf persons in Nunavut. Existing networks were used to determine the number of deaf Inuit in the various communities. This involved the health and social service network, as well as other more informal community contacts. Most of the information was gathered by phone, email, and/or fax.

The telephone survey was conducted by Janet McGrath, an interpreter who speaks (and teaches) Inuktitut and who has extensive experience in Nunavut. She used her contacts in many communities to gather the information. Contacts covered a range of persons, some of whom worked in government agencies while others worked in business or the professions. In some communities the families of deaf persons were known in advance due to personal acquaintance. In these cases Janet McGrath initiated lengthier discussions concerning various aspects of deafness and sign language.

Much useful information was obtained using this technique. Twenty of the twenty-six communities were contacted directly. We sought to gather demographic information about deaf people, including approximate age, gender, educational history (southern Canada vs. northern Canada) and attendance at school for the deaf. We also wanted to obtain an estimate of the number of hearing persons who could communicate with the deaf persons using sign language.

3.2 Field visits

Based on the results of the telephone survey, my technical assistant and I conducted follow-up field visits to three selected communities for the purpose of gaining information and background material on deafness and sign language, as well as for the purpose of recording actual sign language interactions using video-tape. An exploration of whether the sign language being used is ASL or an indigenous form of sign language was also undertaken.

The three communities chosen were Iqaluit, Pangnirtung and Rankin Inlet. The deaf people and their families and friends in all three communities were most cooperative and helpful. Initially it was proposed that we elicit responses to a standard list of one hundred vocabulary items for common objects and actions in order to obtain a preliminary understanding of the linguistic status of the signing systems from the point of view of consistency in the communication system and any dialectal variations that may exist. We were quickly confronted with methodological difficulties in our attempt to "elicit" vocabulary items. It became clear that direct questioning was socially inappropriate. In addition, it became obvious that the questions we were trying to answer by looking only at vocabulary and dialect were misdirected. Our initial concern was with "home sign" vs. "more developed sign". In other words we were trying to determine if the signing systems were consistent "languages" or just rudimentary gesture systems that had developed in the absence of environmental linguistic input and which would consequently fall short of full linguistic status. This turned out to be a limited approach.

"Home sign" is conventionally associated with young deaf children who develop signs in the absence of adult or peer linguistic input (Morford, Singleton and Goldin-Meadow, 1995; Volterra & Erting, 1994; Volterra, Beronesi & Massoni, 1994). This occurs either because of a deliberate attempt to suppress language in an environment of social deprivation or as a result of an ideological adherence to the "oral" philosophy which forbids signing in front of deaf children. The theoretical issue in this area that is currently in debate is whether this "home sign" has all the characteristics of language or falls short of this status. The weight of linguistic evidence at the present time seems to favour the hypothesis that indeed this type of limited signing system is actually a language. It is worth noting that even those who deny "home sign" is a language believe that it does nevertheless provide the early linguistic basis for later language in development (Goldin-Meadow & Mylander, 1994). [1]

In view of the above considerations and our early experience with the deaf people and their friends, and based on the information we had already collected from the telephone survey, our methodology changed to that of obtaining a "a linguistic corpus" of naturalistic conversations in sign which would give an indication of the range and complexity of the sign languages being used. Apart from recording sign language conversations, informal, semi-structured interviews were conducted. Emphasis was put on talking to participants about their perspectives on deaf people and their sign language. Discussions included the solicitation of historical information related to deafness.

In addition, in all three communities contact was made with various professionals and other interested parties regarding the situation of deaf people in Nunavut. All of the people contacted expressed interest in the goals and objectives of this project.

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