As membership in the Nunavut Deaf Society (NDS) slowly grows, the volunteer organization is turning its energy toward making homes safer for deaf people.

photo courtesy Paige MacDougall
Philip Ugjuk, left, Louisa Nanooklook, Kima Nanooklook, Molly Ugjuk, Johnny Ugjuk and Canadian Deafness Research and Training Institute research director Paige MacDougall spent a week together during an Inuit Sign Language workshop in Rankin Inlet last month.

“The deaf people in Rankin Inlet who met with Paige (MacDougall) brought out a concern of health and safety, specifically in terms of fire safety,” said NDS president Sandy Kownak.

“They wanted our society to look into the issue, and possibly work with the local fire department to start coordinating a project where the deaf people have alarm systems to self-notify of a fire and also to alert a message centre so emergency services can be sent over.”

Kownak explained the alarm system is a flashing strobe light.

“There’s different levels of flashing that can be set for deaf people. A special high intensity of flashing light can generally wake sleeping people.”

There are also vibration systems, which can shake the bed, and other types of equipment available.

“It’s a high-risk issue,” said Kownak.

The home-safety concerns were then brought forward to the deaf society’s fourth annual general meeting held March 28 in Iqaluit. AGMs are now conducted by remote video, and include professional interpretation from Ottawa. This one included members from Pangnirtung, Baker Lake and Iqaluit.

Paige MacDougall is research director for the Canadian Deafness Research and Training Institute, and daughter to the founder Jamie MacDougall and his wife Michele, who have been engaging deaf Nunavummiut for almost 20 years.

MacDougall was in Rankin for 10 days in March presenting new materials. For several years she has been returning to Rankin Inlet for such workshops.

“We got together daily, deaf persons and their families, and we did interpretations of different life-story videos in the various sign languages,” said MacDougall.

“One of the most enjoyable aspects of that group was certainly the recording of new signs in Inuit Sign Language. There’s dialectical variations, and the deaf people are extraordinarily excited to learn from one another and incorporate the signs, making the sign language richer.”

MacDougall offered the word “Sunday” as an example.

“There were four people at one point and I asked them all to tell me what their sign for Sunday was. We laughed so hard. They were completely different signs,” she said.

“Depending on whether you associate Sunday with the church or relaxation or with family, each person’s sign sort of summed up what Sunday means to them. And everyone was really enthusiastic about learning the different signs.”

MacDougall says from the videos she recorded during her time in Rankin, new flash cards and other materials will be produced.

photo courtesy of Paige MacDougall
Joanne Quinangnaq, left, Sandra Quinangnaq, Darren Quinangnaq and Monica Ugjuk enjoy viewing and reading the life story of a respected Rankin Inlet deaf hunter and artist, the late Yvo Samgushak, in Rankin Inlet last month.

A video, which accompanies an illustrated book, of the late Yvo Samgushak, a highly respected deaf hunter and artist from Rankin Inlet, is available at the institute’s website, as well as Isuma TV’s website.

Kownak says the goal is a comprehensive Nunavut-wide sign language.

With 20 members of an estimated 150 deaf people in the territory, Kownak says the organization wants to reach out to include more deaf people. As a volunteer organization with very few resources, their only tools are social media and referrals.

“We’re still trying to get into the school system to share our tools,” said Kownak.

photo courtesy Paige MacDougall
Sandy Kownak, left, Clayton Ungungai, and Nakasuk School teacher Nadia Sammurtok show Sammurtok’s students the Nunavut Deaf Society’s flash cards, with illustrated Inuit Sign Language accompanied by the Inuktitut and English words.

Kownak and her deaf son Clayton Ungungai visited Nakasuk School in Iqaluit, where teacher Nadia Sammurtok gave them the opportunity to show her class that Inuit Sign Language exists.

“We were warmly welcomed by the students, they were totally engaged, and willing to sign and learn,” Kownak said. “They were very curious and interested just to hear there are deaf people in Nunavut.”

Increased membership in the society would bring increased opportunities to partner with organizations and school in those communities.

“That’s what the Nunavut Deaf Society set out to do, to be that voice for the deaf,” Kownak said. “We’re a great resource to come to in terms of anything deaf in Nunavut. We’re very interested in working with other organizations.”

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