As Ontario Premier Doug Ford stood at Queen’s Park and admonished a high-end Toronto grocery store for inflating their prices amid the COVID-19 pandemic, another man appeared beside him, his expression a perfect mixture of disdain and disappointment.
Christopher Desloges, an American sign language (ASL) interpreter, has become a fixture at Mr. Ford’s news conferences, where he translates the Premier’s message live on television for tens of thousands of deaf people in Ontario and across Canada.
So when Mr. Ford recently criticized grocer Pusateri’s for increasing prices on Lysol wipes (the company has since apologized, calling it a mistake), Mr. Desloges captivated audiences as he encapsulated the Premier’s emotional state.
“Doug Ford over the last few days has been kind of … taking the angry dad approach,” Mr. Desloges said in an interview this week.
“He held back, and then he let out. And to me that was the feeling that I was trying to capture to someone who can’t hear.”
Across the country, politicians and health officials are holding daily news conferences on COVID-19, updating the public with crucial advice and the latest developments.
Increasingly, those news conferences – from Newfoundland to British Columbia – feature sign language and deaf interpreters, something accessibility advocates say is a new and exciting development. Mr. Desloges is not deaf, but some interpreters are; they take their cues from a second sign language interpreter, who stands behind the camera. In 2019, Ottawa passed the Accessible Canada Act, which requires that information from the federal government and from regulated industries be made fully accessible to people with disabilities.
According to the Canadian Association of the Deaf, about 375,000 Canadians are deaf, but there is a lack of census information.
Mr. Desloges, who says he is the only mixed-race black male in Canada who is a professional sign language interpreter, first learned sign language when he was about nine years old from his aunt, who is deaf. “I really wanted to be a ninja. And being able to speak with my hands silently really worked," he said.
Born and raised in Toronto’s west end, he graduated from George Brown College with a degree from the deaf studies program. He now helms a company, Toronto Sign Language Interpreter Service, which provides services for broadcasters and others.
While he stresses that interpreters should remain impartial about their subjects, Mr. Desloges said he channels his own experience during the coronavirus pandemic while signing for Mr. Ford.
“When I go to Shoppers Drug Mart, there’s no toilet paper and a lineup down the street. That’s frustrating," he said. "I have people who are seniors in my family, who aren’t getting what they need.”
What has touched him the most about his experience, he said, has been the Premier’s focus on people working together to combat COVID-19.
“When he talks about the Ontario spirit, that’s really, really hitting home for me," he said. “I think he’s doing a fantastic job of leading the province during this crisis.”
On Wednesday, Mr. Ford called Mr. Desloges to the podium at the end of his news conference, saying he’s received countless calls about his interpreter.
“My friend, you’re a champion, you’re a rock star, helping people in the deaf community," Mr. Ford said.
Mr. Desloges will soon be replaced by a deaf interpreter, who he said is able to reach the broader deaf community because they are better understood in their first language.
But he hopes his time in the spotlight will help shine a light on accessibility issues across the country.
“If it means that everybody is getting exposure to sign language and saying that it’s cool – great, I’ll take it," he said.
“People are going to start to come together for inclusion, because they saw the sign language interpreter with the Premier.”
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