05/27/2015 04:38 EDT | Updated 05/27/2016 05:59 EDT

Federal Election 2015: Deaf Canadians Fear Loss Of Captioned TV Debates

OTTAWA - Deaf and hard-of-hearing Canadians fear their needs as voting citizens might be lost in the shuffle in the coming election campaign as the federal parties squabble over the formats and hosts of the leaders' debates.

The proposal by the major TV networks, put to the federal parties, includes closed captioning in both French and English — as has been the case in previous debates.

However, the Conservative Party of Canada has rejected the proposal from the so-called broadcast consortium, which includes CBC/Radio-Canada, Global News and CTV.

As a result, the televised debates are in limbo; it's not clear whether the opposition parties would bother with a faceoff that doesn't include the prime minister.

The Conservatives have emphasized their desire for different formats, citing the fact many Canadians no longer watch traditional TV. But broadcasters are required by regulation to include closed captioning with their programming, even during commercials.

Will new debate proposals from Maclean's magazine, the Globe and Mail/Google Canada, the Munk Debates and others include services for the hearing impaired?

Rudyard Griffiths, organizer of the Munk Debates, said the organization is looking into closed captioning and sign language, as well as simultaneous French and English translation.

James Roots, executive director of the Canadian Association of the Deaf, said up to ten million Canadians with varying degrees of hearing benefit from closed captioning.

"We certainly are deeply concerned and distressed by the entire squabble over the proposed federal election debates," Roots said in an email.

"Without taking sides in the dispute, we emphasize that all Canadians — not just Deaf ones — have a legal and moral right to equal access to the debates, and that this access has traditionally been provided by means of captioning."

Regardless of whether they have hearing difficulties, many new Canadians rely on closed captioning, said Susan Masters of the Western Institute for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.

New technology has not always been a good thing for people with hearing loss, she added.

"Not very much on the Web is captioned or accessible — very little of it is — so that leaves deaf and hard-of-hearing people behind in terms of information."

Geoff Smith, a former lawyer who began losing his hearing because of a brain tumour nearly 30 years ago, wrote to The Canadian Press with his concerns after reading about the negotiations over the debates.

"My concern is that I don't like being excluded from participating in the debates," Smith said in an text-message interview.

"As a deafened person, I work very hard making sure I am included. So this suggestion by (Stephen) Harper is more than attempt to control the media. He is manipulating me too by moving the debates onto the Internet."

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