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March 13, 2004

Deaf programming joins Omni TV's cultural mosaic

From: Toronto Star - Toronto,Ontario,Canada - Mar 13, 2004


Most people associate culture with geography. You come from a certain corner of the planet, you share with others born and bred there certain tastes, common experiences, a sense of humour and language.

If you have migrated from your home culture to live as a minority in the middle of another, it's not always easy to feel a part of the larger community or know that others appreciate the richness of your background.

That's part of the reason Omni Television's two channels broadcast programs in more than 40 languages.

As of next Saturday, another culture will be added to the mosaic. This one is at home all over the world. It has always been in our midst, yet few in the mainstream culture bother to acknowledge let alone explore it.

American Sign Language (ASL) is the means of communication recognized everywhere by the capital-D Deaf culture, as its members designate it. Denmark has had government-funded "Deaf TV" for more than 36 years. Britain has a sign-language drama series.

But to Canadians, the world behind the rapid hand conversations enjoyed among people who cannot hear is still very much uncharted territory.

A decade ago, the CBC very briefly tried a weekly Silent News program, with a Deaf anchor. It never really got the chance to fly. But its producer, Peter Reynolds, and his son, also named Peter, approached Omni last year with a new idea.

At the time, the company, owned by Rogers Communications, was applying to regulatory authorities for permission to add a second channel of culturally diverse programming to the TV dial. The father-and-son team argued that Deaf culture would be an important addition to the mix.

Omni not only recognized the significance of the idea; through its independent producers initiative it offered to finance the development of two ASL programs. Both have English-language subtitles and voiceover.

The first program to air (March 20) will be Deaf Pride, a documentary exploring the people and ideas at the 14th congress of the World Federation of the Deaf in Montreal last summer. Hosted by Anselmo DeSousa, a Deaf youth advocate and actor, it introduces us to a group of young people, professionals and advocates from around the globe as they delve into Deaf culture.

Education, housing and employment are huge issues for the community. Less than 2 per cent of Deaf children in India attend school. And rich, industrialized nations still have a long way to go in providing a level playing field.

"We hope to show people that being Deaf is neither a misfortune nor a disability," says DeSousa as he introduces the program. "The World Congress held in Montreal was a thrilling and positive experience."

Deaf Pride will be followed by Deaf TV, the pilot for a magazine-type show. The debut features profiles of Christie Smith, a Deaf contestant on the Amazon version of Survivor; Whitby's Brent Pinch, the only Deaf player on his ice hockey team; Deaf actor Deanne Bray, star of Sue Thomas: FBEye; and former NDP MPP Gary Malkowski, vice-president in charge of consumer, government and corporate relations at the Canadian Hearing Society.

"This is a first for us," says Omni vice-president and general manager Madeline Ziniak. Since deafness spans all traditional cultures and ASL is recognized by all Deaf people among communities already served by the TV group, the program "will be a barometer of the interest that's out there," she says.

If the advertising community recognizes the scope of the market, the show could become a regular, Ziniak adds.

I don't know how potential advertisers will respond to Deaf Pride and Deaf TV, but I do know that the Deaf community is waiting eagerly for the debut.

"I think it's an excellent idea, really important in promoting understanding and letting young people know it's okay to be Deaf," says Andora Prince, who wrote to Omni offering support as soon as she heard about the program.

The world premiere of the documentary Deaf Pride and the companion pilot program Deaf TV will air on OMNI.2 a week today at 8 p.m.

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