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ASL Interpreters

White House & President Trump sued for not using sign language interpreters at Coronavirus briefings

The National Association of the Deaf and several deaf people have sued the White House and President Trump, claiming that the lack of American Sign Language (ASL) Interpreters at administration pandemic briefings violates federal disability discrimination law and the U.S. Constitution’s free speech guarantees.

The Suit in Federal Court

The suit was filed in federal court on August 3. In the complaint, the plaintiffs allege:

“This is an action to ensure that hundreds of thousands of deaf and hard of hearing (“DHH”) Americans have access to critical, potentially life-saving information conveyed by our nation’s political and public health leaders during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Closed captioning, the suit claims, is not sufficient and is discriminatory against people with hearing disabilities who cannot read English. The allegation is similar to one made in a May 2020 case against New York Governor Cuomo. In that case, the federal court held that closed captioning discriminated against deaf and hard of people who are limited English proficient. Closed captioning, without accompanying ASL interpretation, does not afford the “effective communications’ required by federal law. The New York federal court’s decision in the Cuomo case informs the legalities and likely outcome in the new Trump lawsuit.

As the New York court decided:

“The live broadcasts with closed captioning, while perhaps accommodating deaf New Yorkers who are fully literate in English, do not accommodate Plaintiffs and other similar deaf New Yorkers who cannot read English. In other words, without in-frame ASL interpretation, Plaintiffs are, “as a practical matter, [un]able to access benefits to which they are legally entitled…

Although the Court acknowledges that [Cuomo’s] accommodations need not be “perfect,” they still must ensure that the press briefings are “readily accessible” to the Plaintiffs in this case. Although Governor Cuomo is providing reasonable accommodations for many deaf New Yorkers, he has failed to make the “reasonable accommodations” necessary to give these Plaintiffs access to his briefings. “

Closed Captions VS ASL Interpreters

According to TheHill.com, plaintiffs in the new Trump federal case further contend

“… that the captions carried on video of the events lack details that would be conveyed by a sign language interpreter.

Tone is also often lost in written captions. By contrast, an interpreter is able to convey tone and context of a message through facial expressions, sign choice, and demeanor,” the lawsuit reads, according to CNN. “Further, the provision of live closed captioning frequently contains errors and omissions that make it difficult or impossible for [deaf and hard of hearing] individuals to understand the information being provided in the briefings, particularly if they are not fluent in English.”

In the new case against the administration, plaintiffs point out that the president “stands alone” in his failure not to provide ASL interpreters for his pandemic press briefings.

The Complaint

According to the complaint:

“All 50 states’ governors have provided in-frame American Sign Language (“ASL”) interpretation during public briefings regarding the pandemic, and all but a small handful continue to do so consistently. So have many mayors of America’s largest cities. Leaders from around the world have also provided sign language interpretation for public briefings during the pandemic.

This is done in recognition of the importance of meaningful access to up-to-date information regarding the crisis for DHH people. President Trump, however, does not. He now stands alone in holding televised briefings regarding the COVID-19 pandemic without ever having provided any ASL interpretation. This means that not only are DHH Americans being denied the opportunity to understand any communication from the President of the United States during this critical time, they are also being denied the opportunity to access information, analysis, and updates from Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx—two renowned public health experts.

With COVID-19 cases spiking in many states across the country, it is more important than ever that all Americans have access to up to date, public health information in the coming months.

Various organizations and entities, including the National Association for the Deaf (“NAD”), have requested that the White House provide ASL interpretation during its public COVID-19 related briefings. Additionally, 34 United States Senators have requested the same. The White House has ignored these requests and continues to conduct briefings without any ASL interpretation.”

Requests for ASL Interpreters During Pandemic Briefings

Since March, CNN reports, deaf people have asked the administration to provide ASL interpreters for the pandemic briefings. Their requests have been ignored. The ongoing failure to make administration briefings accessible to deaf and hard of hearing people has been a source of much discontent:

“Many in the Deaf community say they are growing wary of not having important information disseminated to them through qualified sign language interpreters.

I’m sad, angry and frustrated for myself and my community,” Melissa “echo” Greenlee, founder and CEO of deaffriendly.com, a consumer review platform for the deaf and hard of hearing community, told CNN in an email.

“I’m so tired of being left out and the last to know anything.”

After receiving “daily complaints,” the National Association of the Deaf — the largest deaf advocacy group in the US — and the National Council on Disability (NCD) sent letters to then-White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham urging the White House coronavirus task force to use American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters during its daily briefings.

There is no doubt that the coronavirus brings with it significant added concerns for people with disabilities,” NCD Chairman Neil Romano wrote in the letter, which was sent on March 18.

The US Census Bureau estimates that about 11.5 million Americans have some degree of hearing loss. Yet months into the coronavirus pandemic, the White House still does not have American Sign Language interpreters at its televised public health press briefings…

The Trump administration has used interpreters in past public health briefings, including before and in the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and Harvey.

The Importance of Interpreters During COVID-19

Now, deaf advocates say, ASL interpreters are needed more than ever. Since January, the novel coronavirus has spread to every state and territory. As of Wednesday night, there are more than 846,000 cases in the US, with at least 46,000 reported deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University.

During a pandemic especially, it’s risky and senseless to not provide information to everyone,” Greenlee, who is deaf, told CNN. “If the deaf community is without the information they need — such as social distancing orders, stay at home orders, hygiene orders and mask wearing orders — those very people become a risk to themselves and the community they live in…

In his letter, National Association for the Deaf CEO Howard Rosenblum said his organization has received “daily complaints from deaf and hard of hearing citizens across the country asking why their President is not ensuring they are getting the same access to emergency information as everyone else.”

Celebrities, such as Marlee Matlin, have reiterated those requests, stressing the importance of having interpreters during Covid-19.

Dear @WhiteHouse news & press conferences around the country during this Corona Virus Emergency have sign language interpreters standing next to the speakers, providing ACCESS for millions of deaf Americans,” Matlin, an Academy Award winning actress and activist who is deaf, tweeted. “Can you do the same, PLEASE?”

In addition to the legal requirements for ASL interpreters, their presence is crucial for deaf and hard of hearing people to stay informed about potentially life-saving pandemic news from the government.

According to CNN:

“The Deaf community has overwhelmingly given positive feedback directly to me through social media, email, video calls, and text messages,” Rupert Dubler, a certified deaf interpreter who has served alongside Republican Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker during his daily coronavirus updates, told CNN in an email interview.

I have heard again and again about how community members didn’t realize the severity of this pandemic until they watched us at work and adjusted their plans accordingly.”


© Bruce L. Adelson 2020. All Rights Reserved The material herein is educational and informational only.  No legal advice is intended or conveyed.

Bruce L. Adelson, Esq., is nationally recognized for his compliance expertise.  Mr. Adelson is a former U.S Department of Justice Civil Rights Division Senior Trial Attorney.  Mr. Adelson is a Department of Family Medicine faculty member at Georgetown University School of Medicine where he teaches organizational culture, implicit bias, cultural and civil rights awareness.

Mr. Adelson’s blogs are a Bromberg exclusive

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