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Baltimore Mayor Young apologizes to deaf community after cutting off ASL interpreter during coronavirus news conference

Mayor Jack Young holds a news conference at Baltimore City Hall on Tuesday with an interpreter to his right.
Mayor Jack Young holds a news conference at Baltimore City Hall on Tuesday with an interpreter to his right. (Emily Opilo/Baltimore Sun)

Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young apologized to the city’s deaf community Thursday, two days after he cut off a sign-language interpreter during a news conference about the coronavirus that was disrupted by protesters.

Young held a news conference Tuesday in front of City Hall that was interrupted by advocates for the city’s homeless population. They called for Young to take additional steps to protect vulnerable residents in Baltimore who can’t simply “stay home” during the pandemic.

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The mayor’s voice was drowned out by the protesters, and he eventually paused his remarks. But the interpreter continued to sign, conveying the protesters’ message to those watching the news conference.

Young then tapped the interpreter, telling him: “You interpret for us.” The man stopped signing.

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When the protesters eventually finished their demonstration, Young resumed his remarks and the interpreter picked up again.

Some have criticized the mayor for effectively silencing a person whose job it is to ensure that people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing get an accurate sense of what’s happening.

The Baltimore City Association of the Deaf sent a letter to Young saying it hopes he learns from the experience and doesn’t repeat that behavior in the future. The mayor’s actions, the letter states, are “considered as oppressive behavior toward our community.”

“Citizens watching your press conference without a hearing loss are able to hear your message, as well as the protesters,” it reads. “The Deaf and Hard of Hearing citizens were excluded from that same equal access to the protesters’ messages.”

Joshua Lamont, an interpreter who lives in Hampden, called the city to complain about the mayor’s actions. He said interpreters have a duty to convey what can be heard.

Many people in Baltimore rely on interpreters during news conferences, especially now, as the city works to disseminate critical information about the coronavirus pandemic.

“We have one job,” Lamont said. “We are hired for communication access. The only job of an interpreter is to communicate. To stand there and say, ‘Stop this because I don’t like the message,’ that is gross."

Young said Thursday that his actions were not intended as a "slight to the deaf community,” adding that he has a brother who is deaf.

“I stopped everything because I wanted to make sure the protesters were heard,” Young said. “I didn’t mean any harm to the deaf community.”

Johns Hopkins Professor Nicholas Reed, who researches hearing loss, said the mayor’s actions point to larger issues during this pandemic related to disability inclusivity and public health.

It’s an especially difficult time for those with hearing loss, Reed said, as many people are covering their mouths with masks, ramping up telecommunication and physically distancing themselves.

Given the situation, he said, proper access to information during a public health crisis is vital.

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“They have a right to equitable access and to understand what was said, without any filters,” Reed said.

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