Brandon Deaf Connections coffee group offers community connection, ASL practice in southwestern Manitoba

Frustrated by limited support for people who are deaf or hard of hearing, a local group in Manitoba’s second-largest city has formed to practise American Sign Language and provide support for each other.

Terri Antoniw, who is deaf, created the Brandon Deaf Connections coffee group in January after moving back to her community. It quickly grew to around two dozen people of all ages meeting up at the city’s Shoppers Mall for coffee and conversation in American Sign Language.

The monthly coffee meetups are a chance to give visibility to the growing deaf community in the city, Antoniw said. People often stop by to learn more about the community or join the group in practising ASL.

“We have people who see us in the mall, and they come up to us and say hello and ask us what’s up and why there’s so many signers in one place,” Antoniw said with a grin.

“[They are] seeing that we’re just normal people and we’re signing, and we’re having fun and you see us laughing.”

A woman sits at a table.
Terri Antoniw says she started Brandon Deaf Connections to build connections in the deaf and hard of hearing community, while also showing more resources are needed. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

Antoniw wants to help people feel connected to their community, while also demonstrating that more resources are needed for those outside of Winnipeg who are deaf or hard of hearing.

If she needs an interpreter in Brandon, they have to make an almost three-hour drive from Winnipeg. Paying for the interpreter’s time and travel costs gets expensive, and it’s often not worth the expense for a short meeting, said Antoniw.

She can use technology like video calls or voice-to-text, but it’s often unreliable, doesn’t always capture the emotion of a conversation or misses important moments.

“It doesn’t feel like full access,” Antoniw said. “Everyone feels isolated.”

Interpreters needed

Antoniw, who has been deaf since birth, grew up in Brandon not knowing ASL. She felt isolated because she couldn’t hear the world around her, she said.

When she moved to Winnipeg for college, learning ASL and having access to more resources changed her life, said Antoniw. She began meeting other deaf and hard of hearing people, which helped build her confidence.

“It was amazing because I finally felt like I can get the information that I had been looking for my whole life, and feeling more involved in conversations.”

She wants to provide those opportunities for others who haven’t had them — especially because not everyone can move to a city with a bigger deaf community.

She hopes that the support and visibility that come from Brandon Deaf Connections will help encourage better services or inspire ASL interpreters to move to the city.

“Maybe they’ll realize that there’s a need for an interpreter service,” she said, adding it’s hard for people in Brandon who are deaf or hard of hearing to live without that. 

“It’s not really fair.… We miss so much.”

A person uses American Sign Language.
Brandon Deaf Connections regular Yvonne Zarn says more supports, like ASL interpreters, are needed in the Brandon area. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

Yvonne Zarn is one of many people in the group frustrated by the lack of ASL support in Brandon, which she says affects every aspect of her life. 

Zarn hopes the group can expand signing in Brandon, while pushing for more programs, interpreting or opportunities for people to learn ASL.

“The group here helps. I feel comfortable,” Zarn said.

But the group can’t come with her everywhere —  to the doctor’s office, for example — and being without an interpreter is isolating, because it’s a language barrier and affects what she can access, said Zarn.

Tammy Lumax said before Brandon Deaf Connections, having a place to hang out and sign was unheard of. Now, she gets excited about meetups, seeing her friends and learning more signs.

Two people laugh at a table.
Tammy Lumax and Kerrie Gibbs chat at a Brandon Deaf Connections meeting. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

But more ASL support is still needed, she said.

“It would give … other people that are deaf the opportunity that there would be interpreters to help them out,” said Lumax. “They could maybe get them out in the community and not be stuck inside.”

Learning through community

Krystal Cayne began learning ASL through YouTube. She says class options are limited.

Red River College Polytechnic’s ASL-English interpretation program paused in 2022, but the college says it’s aiming to have a new program in place by the 2025-26 academic year. Assiniboine College offers online self-guided instructor-led ASL through its continuing studies program.

Cayne says there are places like the Deaf Centre Manitoba in Winnipeg where people can immerse themselves in the language, but for people like her who are outside Winnipeg, attending courses in person is expensive.

At the coffee group, Cayne can practise what she’s been learning.

Three people sit at a table signing American Sign Language.
Krystal Kayne, left, Bonnie Wang and Mae Wang practise ASL at Shoppers Mall. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

“This is great because you learn more about the culture, sentence structure and the correct way to do it for Canadians,” Cayne said. “Even though they’re all ASL, there’s different dialects.… There’s different words for Canadians than Americans.”

Antoniw knows there are a lot of barriers that need to be broken down to get ASL support and classes in Brandon. The coffee meetup is her way of doing that.

Classes are a good way to improve skills later on, she said, but “being involved in the community is the best way to learn to start with.”