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Mitchell LaFrance, Deaf Ontario Man, Clashes With CRA Over Assistive Technology

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HALIFAX — An Ontario man who is deaf says the assistive technology meant to help him communicate more readily with large organizations is now the source of conflict between him and the Canada Revenue Agency.

Mitchell LaFrance has been trying to get help from the government organization about his account and said his efforts were thwarted earlier this month when the CRA refused to deal with him via a relay service.

"The Canada Revenue Agency is a federal agency, they are supposed to set the example to provide services to all Canadian citizens,'' said LaFrance in an email.

"I feel that they are using the old policies and stuck with it.''

Relay services, the modern successor to teletypewriters for the hearing impaired, use a computer program to allow the hearing impaired to type out and read a conversation using an operator in the middle to translate text to voice and vice-versa.

But because there's a third person in the conversation, it's considered a third-party service and the CRA said LaFrance must sign an authorization form allowing the relayer to act on his behalf.

Mylene Croteau, spokeswoman for the Canada Revenue Agency said the authorization addresses a problem of privacy - because some people in the deaf community cannot give verbal permission for CRA agents to talk to a relay operator, they must sign an authorization form.

"If a taxpayer is hearing impaired but has good speech skills, they can provide verbal authorization over the phone and written authorization is not required,'' she said in an email.

LaFrance said he isn't comfortable signing the authorization form because he said it makes anyone within the relay company a representative of his, permitted to make changes to his account without his knowledge.

LaFrance is far from alone in this issue.

Gary Malkowski of the Canadian Hearing Society said conflict over the use of assistive technology has been an ongoing issue for the society for at least the last four years.

"The most challenging (organization) is the CRA,'' he said through a sign language interpreter.

"Our staff, our counsellors, have all tried to escalate this issue to managers and it always comes back to the third party form.''

Both LaFrance and Malkowski said the relay company is not a representative of the user - just a service provider transcribing what they say.

Malkowski said interpreters have their own code of ethics and confidentiality, so there shouldn't be a privacy concern if the user can answer a series of security questions.

Croteau suggested anyone who is hearing impaired could use a teletypewriter, but this device requires a landline phone, which LaFrance said is outdated technology.

"(The teletypewriter) is dying and I know most of us no longer have (a teletypewriter) and phone line in our households.''

Overcoming barriers to participation in a hearing world is not a new problem for hearing-impaired people, but LaFrance said it hasn't gotten any easier, despite the advent of a wealth of new technologies.

Earlier this year, a professor at Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland chose not to wear an FM transmitter that would help a hard-of-hearing student hear the lecture, citing religious reasons.

"Lots of companies are still unaware how to interact with deaf community,'' said LaFrance.

"They need to realize that every deaf person has different needs to communicate.''

Both LaFrance and Malkowski are hopeful a new technology will completely change communication with the deaf.

Video relay service is a three-way video chat with the customer, an American sign language translator and the person the customer is trying to talk to.

Although it's not currently available in Canada, the not-for-profit corporation the Canadian Administrator of Video Relay Services, has been mandated to design, implement and oversee the delivery of the service.

LaFrance said this technology would make life a whole lot easier as many companies would be able to see the person they are talking to and deaf individuals would then be able to more fully express themselves through facial expressions and body language.

"I would like to have all agencies and businesses in Canada aware of that service and allow us to use it as tool to experience the best communication between the deaf and hearing community,'' he said.

The CRA said some clients already use a video relay service, but still have to sign the form if they aren't able to verbalize authorization.

Malkowski suggests anyone still dealing with barriers should file a complaint with the Human Rights Commission.


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