Organizations representing deaf people in Baltimore and beyond are condemning Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young for stopping a deaf interpreter from relaying the words of a protester at the mayor’s Tuesday press conference outside City Hall.
“You interpret for us,” Young had said, cutting the interpreter off after he began signing the words of Mark Council, a homeless man who had interrupted the press briefing along with other activists.
The mayor’s words came after his spokesman, Lester Davis, rebuked the interpreter and a woman off-camera shouted, “He’s here to interpret for the mayor!”
The interpreter stood with hands clasped as Council went on for nearly three minutes, calling on Young to do more to protect homeless people from the coronavirus by getting them out of city shelters.
Fellow protesters nearby in cars punctuated Council’s message by beeping their horns.
But deaf and hard-of-hearing people were not the only ones who experienced censorship at the event.
Virtually the entire homeless protest sequence – Council’s speech, the chiding of the interpreter, the horn honking – was edited out of the city’s official video of the mayoral briefing.
Jacob Leffler, a city resident who is deaf, had watched the protest on WBAL-TV’s Facebook live video, then found it missing from the YouTube version on CharmTV’s “Government” page.
“That made me angry and frustrated,” Leffler said. “It’s depriving the community of information.”
Also condemning the censorship was Housing Our Neighbors, the group which mounted the protest.
“The fact that the city would censor a homeless man making a life or death plea to house our city’s most vulnerable, shows where their values are,” said member Rachel Kutler, reading from a group statement.
Spokesman Davis said he was not aware of the edit. He promised to find out how it happened and who was responsible.
Asked about the video, mayoral spokesman Davis said he was not aware of the edit. He promised to find out how it happened and who was responsible.
Davis did not call back. Instead, less than 20 minutes after The Brew’s inquiry, the edited video was removed and the full video restored.
The interpreter, who has serviced numerous other city meetings, could not be reached for comment.
But Bill Millios, communications director for the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID), described the incident as “oppressive and discriminatory” behavior towards deaf people.
Without the interpreter relaying the protester’s words via sign language, deaf people would have no way of knowing what he was saying, Millios said.
“The interpreters are there for everybody in the room. They do not ‘belong’ to the speaker or the presenter, regardless of who is paying for them,” Millios said, in an email to The Brew.
“The interpreters are there for everybody in the room. They do not ‘belong’ to the speaker or the presenter, regardless of who is paying for them” – Bill Millios.
“They are there for access of all, to all,” he said. “If something audible happens in the room, then the interpreters are supposed to interpret or inform the deaf person of that. That includes laughter, applause, or protests.”
Millios called Young’s actions an “egregious” violation of the code of professional conduct used by both RID and the National Association of the Deaf, one tenet of which requires interpreters to “render the message faithfully by conveying the content and spirit of what is being communicated.”
“‘Rendering the message faithfully’ means the entire message – not just the message that Mayor Young (or anyone else) designates as ‘acceptable,’” Millios said. “To stop the interpreter from working is effectively censorship.”
Leffler, who is also president of the Baltimore City Association of the Deaf, wrote a letter to Young after learning of the incident, calling on him to apologize and allow sign language interpreters to include all messages conveyed at meetings to the deaf.
“Citizens watching your press conference without a hearing loss are able to hear your message, as well as the protesters,” the association wrote in its letter. “The deaf and hard of hearing citizens were excluded from the same equal access to the protesters’ messages.”
In the letter from BCAD, Leffler and others also say Young’s actions violate the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires cities to provide “effective communication to the community with full access to the information.”
“It was no slight”
In a press conference today, Young said that he didn’t mean to offend the deaf community.
“I stopped everything because I wanted to make sure the protesters were heard,” Young said. “I have a brother and relatives who are deaf, and it was no slight to the deaf community.”
“I wanted the protesters to be heard, but mainly the important information I had to get out to citizens, that’s why I asked them to stop,” he said.
Leffler said he found Young’s apology completely unsatisfactory and that his group “strongly believes that the Mayor is in need of accessibility and sensitivity training.”
“There was absolutely *NO* reason to stop the interpreter whatsoever. He needs to acknowledge that,” Leffler wrote. “An apology isn’t an apology if he does not acknowledge his actions harmed the deaf community. Not saying ‘it was no slight to the deaf community.’”