Deaf fan denied accommodation for captioning at Montreal’s Just for Laughs festival

A deaf from New York says it’s Montreal Just for Laughs Festival rejected its hosting request despite requesting live captioning three months in advance.

Tom Willard, who is a comedian himself, was planning to attend the festival for the first time, buy his ticket and book his hotel, but without the captioning service he was forced to cancel.

Just for Laughs says logistical and technical issues are to blame, but Willard said technology is readily available and it’s time for the annual comedy festival to join the modern era.

These days, there is software that can listen to someone talking and live stream what they’re saying on a screen so deaf people like Willard can just read what’s being said on stage.

Whereas Just for Laughs offered an interpreter is not good enough, Willard said.

He used software technology to be interviewed remotely by CBC in a video call. The software was able to transcribe the journalist’s questions. Willard then read them and responded verbally.

“It’s really hard to understand stand-up comedy through a performer,” he said.

“It’s like the world doesn’t want us to go out and do things. It’s weird.”

Willard was born with the ability to hear but became deaf growing up, he said, and that’s why he can talk but not hear. His stand-up routines include jokes about his condition, but for Willard, accommodations are no laughing matter.

He was thrilled to attend the world’s largest comedy festival which, founded in 1983, is just a six-hour drive away.

He said it was like going to war to get housing and filed a complaint with the Quebec government.

The situation has Willard wondering if he wants to return to the stage. He said it made him feel like acting was not the place for him.

Just for Laughs is committed to accessibility

“We are committed to producing festivals that are open and accessible to everyone,” said just for laughs ino statement.

The statement says Willard requested live captioning in advance, but it was not possible.

“Unlike many other live events, our shows are unscripted, which makes scheduling closed captioning more difficult,” the statement read.

“We regret any disappointment our failure to comply with this request may have caused Mr. Willard and, at his request, we have already refunded his tickets. We will also reimburse his hotel accommodation as a goodwill gesture.”

In some venues, closed captioning is available for members of the public. Performances can be transcribed by software or a human interpreter who types what is said. (Submitted by Tom Willard)

Heidy Wager is the Executive Director of Hear Entender Quebec, an English-speaking non-profit organization that helps people who are deaf or hard of hearing in Montreal. Remote live captioning can be done with automatic technology or someone tapping it, she said.

This type of service must be set up in advance, but it is possible for event organizers to offer the service, she said, noting that her organization works with the community and event organizers. events to raise awareness and help mainstream accessibility.

“Everyone gets frustrated when there are barriers,” Wager said. “But we have to come together as a community and strive to make it better.”

Wager said his group has studied and thought about ways to address the lack of accessibility in the performing arts.

When it comes to hearing loss, each person has different coping needs, she explained.

“Some people will use captioning. Some people will read lips,” she said, and others rely on sign language interpreters.

“There’s a lot of education that needs to be done in the community on how to properly accommodate someone with an invisible disability like hearing loss.”

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