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Politics

Have Brown and Walton lived up to promises of using ASL interpretation and captioning?

Democratic Nominee India Walton and Incumbent Mayor Byron Brown have said a lot this election cycle, but how much of an effort have they made to communicate equitably to people who are deaf or hard of hearing?

WBFO’s Disabilities Desk fact-checked claims made by both about their communication to the Deaf and hard of hearing community and analyzed nearly 500 videos posted between the two for use of captioning and American Sign Language (ASL) interpretation.

Byron Brown

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WBFO News File Photo

One May 26, Western New York Independent Living hosted a "Meet the Candidates" event ahead of the primary. Brown answered questions from the disability community and made a promise.

"Do you feel that it's important to provide an ASL interpreter and captioning, both, for all of your press conferences, press release and announcement?" Dave Wantuck asked. "And will you be able to confirm that in writing that ASL interpreters will be there, as what the county executive and the governor of New York had been doing thus far?"

"Thank you very much for your question, "Brown said. "I do think it's critically important to provide ASL interpreters and closed captioning for all events taking place in the City of Buffalo. We have included funds in the upcoming budget to be able to do that... to be able to provide ASL interpretation and closed captioning of all city events starting July 1. So that is very important. It is important to members of the community being able to get that information that we are putting out at the city level. And we have put the funds in the budget to be able to accomplish this."

But on Facebook, where Brown gets thousands of views on his official mayoral page, he only has six videos with captions posted from July 1 to Oct. 3 out of 84 videos posted. He has two videos with interpreters, but no captioning. One is a People Inc. event. The other is a press conference for Deaf Awareness Week on Sept. 20, where he announced interpretation will be added to mayoral and city press conferences.

"I'm pleased to announce that in an effort to build a more inclusive and more just community, we are enhancing the city sign language interpreter program to include sign language interpreting at mayoral and city department press events beginning today," Brown said.

From Oct. 4 to Oct. 28, 2021, more videos are captioned, but only a little over half of the 29 videos he posted had captioning. Eighteen had captioning, three of which also had interpreters, and 11 didn't have either.

Captioning and ASL interpretation are important aspects of making videos accessible to people who are deaf or hard of hearing. That's why other elected officials, such as the county executive and the governor, added ASL interpretation during the pandemic.

WBFO analyzed Brown's 407 posted videos on his official Facebook page from the day COVID was declared a pandemic, March 11, 2020, through Oct. 28, 2021. Of those 407 videos, 105 had captioning, a rate of about 26%. Only 13 videos in total had ASL interpretation, a rate of 3%. Five of which came after his July 1 budget claim.

At the height of COVID, an interpreter was visible only in five videos from March 16 to March 20, 2020, all regarding COVID and none of those five videos had captioning. From the day COVID was declared a pandemic until October 2020, only eight videos had captioning. We found several COVID-related videos that lacked ASL interpretation or captioning.

During a recent roundtable with WBFO reporters, we asked Brown about why it took a year and a half during the pandemic to get ASL interpretation.

"I would dispute that that took a year and a half," Brown said. "Major news conferences where we were providing information on the pandemic, that the public needed to know that were pandemic-related, we did have interpretation services. And I would ask you to go back and check the record. And I think you would see that at many of those news conferences, particularly early in the pandemic, we did have interpretation services in city government."

To this point, we shared several examples including COVID, winter storm and census videos that lacked captioning or interpretation on Facebook, where many people tuned in to see his announcements. He claims there were interpreters, they were just not visible in his Facebook videos.

"Okay, so you're talking about Facebook, and you know, I will, I will acknowledge that, but in terms of the actual news conference that was happening held in city government on some of these important updates that you mentioned, we did have interpretation. And, you know, that would go out over the news coverage," Brown said.

"I think clearly, Emyle, and, you know, members of the disabled community want to get information from every source possible. And if we were putting things out on social media and that wasn't communicating to our disabled community in a way that they could access it, we needed to correct that," Brown continued. "And we, we have corrected that with social media. But with the actual news conference, we did have interpretation. And I'm glad now that we have corrected the issue of putting things out on social media that did not have interpretation, that now does have interpretation, so members of our disabled community can access that information."

India Walton

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Nick Lippa

Brown isn't the only one who made claims about their full communication to people who are deaf or hard of hearing but hasn't made all of their content accessible. We asked India Walton in a recent interview about what she would do for the disability community if elected.

"I think as a starting point, as a basis, to make sure that City Hall is accessible," Walton said. "Making sure that when I am communicating with the public, there are translation services there's ASL services available and captioning available. Even, you know, during the campaign, I make sure that all of my videos are captioned if I'm doing videos. We try to be mindful of graphics and color that we use to make sure that everybody is able to receive information equitably."

We fact-checked Walton's claim of making sure all her videos are captioned. As a fair comparison to Brown, we analyzed her Facebook videos: 68 in total since she started posting on Dec. 12, 2020. Thirty-nine had captioning, or 57%. We did not spot an interpreter in any of her videos.

In that same time range, Brown posted 235 videos, of which 97 had captioning, or 41% during the same time period as Walton's campaign. Seven videos during this time period had an interpreter.

We reached out again to Brown and Walton's campaigns for further comment and they did not respond back by the time this story was initially posted, but we will update this story if we hear back.

WBFO's Jenna French was the investigative producer for this report.