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Why didn't Buffalo have an ASL interpreter during the Christmas blizzard?

Four people stand around Mayor Byron Brown, who stands at a lectern with the seal of the City of Buffalo on it. There is no ASL interpreter.
Mayor Byron Brown
A screen capture of Byron Brown's last storm update that posted to his Facebook account on Jan. 3.

After previous emergencies, the Deaf community expressed concern with the City of Buffalo’s inconsistent use of American Sign Language (ASL) interpretation.

When Mayor Byron Brown did not provide ASL interpretation during press briefings for a week following the May 14 racist mass shooting at Tops Market, it prompted Disability Rights New York to contact the city.

Still, a WBFO investigation found that in the latest emergency — the region's historic Christmas blizzard that killed more than 40 people — the city lacked an interpreter for seven out of 10 storm updates posted by the mayor on Facebook.

The mayor had an interpreter in three briefings posted to his Facebook in the days leading up to the storm: Dec. 16, 17, and 22. However, the mayor posted seven more videos about the storm, including a final“Post storm update” on Jan. 3, that did not have sign language interpretation. Three videos did not have captions, and the rest were auto-captioned.

Out of the 10 videos on his Facebook, Brown appeared in nine of them, with Nate Marton, Commissioner of Public Works, Parks & Streets appearing in the first video on Dec. 16, which included an interpreter, alone. All of the videos were indoor conferences or briefings, except for two where Brown appeared outside.

WBFO asked Brown about the absence of a sign language interpreter.

“Certainly the City of Buffalo wants an interpreter at news conferences, news briefings and in an emergency situation like this, where the public needs to be notified of important information, important safety information," Brown said.

"What we found is there were times that interpreters could not get to where we were holding news conferences and that was the reason why in some cases in the City of Buffalo, you saw an interpreter, and in other cases, you did not see an interpreter. Because there were some challenges in the organization that we work with being able to get an interpreter to us in the conditions," Brown added. "This is something that we're going to look at, to see how that can be addressed in the future. Because we know it's critically important to be able to communicate with all of our residents, with all of our businesses, with all of our visitors to the city, and interpretation services is a critical component of that.”

Erie County also typically opts for an in-person sign language interpreter. However, beginning on Dec. 23, the first day of the blizzard, the county began having interpreters interpret from home and post a video shortly after their live stream.

WBFO also asked Brown if the city explored similar options.

“I don't know the answer to that offhand. I know that we wanted to provide interpretation services. We know from the community that goes beyond closed captioning. We certainly would look to alternative formats and want to utilize alternative formats in a blizzard situation when an interpreter is not able to get to us," Brown said. "And so we will look into that if alternative formats were explored or utilized. But certainly, we know that interpretation services are critically important, particularly in emergency situations, and it is something that we are committed to in the City of Buffalo.”

In Buffalo, at least 7,800 people are Deaf, hard of hearing, or have a hearing disability, according to the U.S. Census. And Buffalo’s neighbor, Rochester — has one of the largest Deaf communities in the country. In 2012, Rochester Institute of Technology’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf estimated there were over 42,000 people who are Deaf or hard of hearing in the greater Rochester area.

In emergency situations, ASL interpretation is vital because ASL is a different language than English and can be someone’s first language.

While Brown could not provide specifics on the city’s interpretation planning, WBFO reached out to the National Technical Institute for the Deaf in Rochester to learn what cities should do.

Danny Maffia captioning and ASL interpretation

“Preparation ahead of time is crucial for the team of interpreters to be able to really effectively communicate," said Danny Maffia, the interpreting program director at NTID and a practicing hearing interpreter.

“I can understand and empathize in emergency situations that people are very frantic, and people are doing things on the fly," Maffia said. "But having interpreting and providing interpreting services as not an afterthought or a right before thought, but having the preparation ahead of time. So that way, it's a seamless process.”

One way that Monroe County included the Deaf community in the COVID-19 pandemic response was by working with certified Deaf interpreter Keven Poore. Poore is the director of Substance and Addiction Intervention Services for the Deaf at NTID.

Keven Poore captions and signed answers

“After the boom during the pandemic, there was a great dialogue through social media through actual meetings, all over of working on coming up with those best practices," said Poore, who signed his responses.

The best practice for any municipality is to include Deaf people in the process of planning and hosting these events, Poore added.

“It is always something where we have to fight to get a seat at the table, to be there in present," Poore said. "To get information in advance so that we can be well prepared to give accurate information and to pick and choose the best approach and how to make the information most clear and to fit it best to the community who will be receiving that.”

As a certified Deaf interpreter or CDI, Poore is able to not only provide perspective on best practices but also provide the most accurate level of interpretation as someone whose first language is ASL. Typically, a hearing interpreter will stand at the back of a room, and sign to a Deaf interpreter, who then provides a fuller translation.

Keven Poore captions and signed answers

“When you then look at a Deaf person [interpreting], it's almost like a sigh of relief for the person [watching]. Wow," Poore said. "That's my same language. And I think my biggest best practice would be let Deaf people help manage where things are established, where people shouldn't be standing, the camera view, and have Deaf people involved.”

Poore says municipalities should be calling interpreters as soon as they know a press conference is happening, and sometimes working with the same interpreters helps on short notice.

“As a Deaf person growing up, there have been many, many years where I'm getting things secondhand, I have to wait. I'm leftover, so to speak, where I just have to wait. And I'm very late to know many important details or things that the rest of the community already knows," Poore said.

Keven Poore captions and signed answers

"People have to be comfortable with themselves, the mayor or whomever, any person saying, 'Hey, where's my interpreter?' It needs to become habit and ingrained. And knowing, 'Hey, I don't want to go on, I shouldn't go on, I can't go on if that interpreter isn't here with me'," Poore said.

And Poore said while interpreters may not always be able to get there in person, “a virtual interpreter can be a lifesaver in those situations when somebody is unable to get there.” Additionally, a virtual interpreter would also expand the pool of interpreters that can be hired.

The National Technical Institute for the Deaf’s Department of Access Services provided interpretation for this interview.

Emyle Watkins is an investigative journalist covering disability for WBFO.
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