Over the last five months, Baltimore has held mayoral events and press conferences without a deaf interpreter, upsetting organizations representing the deaf and hard of hearing who say Mayor Brandon Scott is violating of provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The critics say the Scott administration’s use of interpreters has stopped completely in recent weeks.
The Baltimore City Association of the Deaf (BCAD) has sent four emails to Scott and other officials since October 30, asking the city to resume using American Sign Language interpreters, but the organization said it has yet to get a response.
“Outrageous” is how BCAD President Jacob Leffler described Baltimore’s lack of interpreters and failure to engage with his group about the problem.
“We feel angry and upset that we cannot understand anything that the mayor or Police Department is saying,” he wrote in an email. “There are important messages that we need to know concerning our safety and access.”
“We feel angry and upset that we cannot understand anything that the Mayor or Police Department is saying” – Jacob Leffler, Baltimore City Association of the Deaf.
Although the City Council, Board of Estimates, Zoning and Liquor boards, and similar bodies have never routinely used sign language interpreters, the practice became common for mayors during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Interpreters stood beside Mayor Scott and his predecessor, Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, as they announced masking and stay-at-home advisories during the pandemic.
Practice Trailed Off
The Brew’s review of mayoral news conferences and other events posted on Baltimore’s CharmTV YouTube account show the consistent use of interpreters trailed off last May.
But they weren’t used for other major events in October, such as the Harborplace design announcement with Scott and Maryland Governor Wes Moore or the swearing-in ceremony for the city’s new fire and police chiefs.
And Scott does not appear to have used an American Sign Language interpreter for any event so far posted in November.
While the videos posted on the CharmTV YouTube account have auto-generated captions and transcripts, there is no live American Sign Language interpretation of the events, as local advocates have called for.
City officials have not yet responded to a request for comment.
Tensions Flared in 2020
Tensions between the city and the deaf and hard of hearing community were sparked in April 2020 when Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young stopped a deaf interpreter from signing the words of an affordable housing protestor during a press conference outside of City Hall.
“You interpret for us,” Young instructed the interpreter, after he began signing the words of Mark Council, a homeless man who had interrupted the press briefing along with other activists.
Following that incident, Leffler said the BCAD gained a seat on the Mayor’s Commission on Disabilities and city departments contacted the organization about support for policies and events that they host.
But since the organization confronted the city about a lack of interpreters, there’s been only radio silence.
“DeafBlind members cannot see or hear so they need to have an image description and transcript so they know what is happening,” Leffler wrote. “It is very important to the Baltimore City Association of the Deaf to ensure that EVERYONE has equal access.”
According to the 1990 Disabilities Act, state and local governments are required to communicate effectively with people who have communication disabilities.
Public officials should give primary consideration to “the choice of aid or service requested by the person who has a communication disability,” according to Department of Justice guidance on the law.
Interpreters and Captions
Leffler said that the Maryland Association for the Deaf sent accessibility guidelines to Baltimore and every Maryland county in August, but the city had not taken the guidelines into account, such as hiring an American Sign Language interpreter.
“According to the ADA, we have the right to have interpreters for the purpose of effective communication,” says Tiny Joyner, president of the Maryland Association for the Deaf, in a letter sent to Scott today.
In a letter sent to Scott today, Leffler wrote that “In moving forward, we request that you have a sign language interpreter and captions during the briefings, police briefings, and more.”
“This means having a qualified interpreter stand next to the person delivering the message and having both people clearly in the picture with any chyrons and captioning below them so as not to obstruct signing,” his letter continued.
The letter was also sent to the the governor’s office and to Lt. Gov. Aruna Miller.
“Oftentimes, they forget about sign language interpreters and captions until later,” Leffler said.
“It is frustrating, but we always need to educate them about our needs and the accessibility needs.”
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