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Lawsuit Demands Sign Language at White House Virus Briefings

2020-08-04 20:24:13

The National Association of the Deaf and five deaf Americans have sued the White House, arguing that the lack of a sign language interpreter at President Trump’s coronavirus briefings violates the First Amendment.

The association is seeking to force Mr. Trump and other White House officials to use American Sign Language, or A.S.L., interpreters during “television broadcasts of their coronavirus press conferences and briefings to make them accessible to deaf and hard-of-hearing people.”

“Deaf and hard-of-hearing people are affected by the pandemic, just like everyone else, but we’re not getting the same access to information, resources, and updates as others,” Howard A. Rosenblum, the association’s chief executive, said in an email. “Accurate captioning helps anyone and everyone. Appropriately assigned interpreters at press briefings avoids possible misunderstandings.”

Reached for a response to the lawsuit, which was filed on Monday in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, the White House referred inquiries to the Justice Department, which declined to comment.

The N.A.D. said in a statement that deaf and hard-of-hearing Americans “are often left behind with the latest updates and actions the U.S. government has taken to address this pandemic.” Live captioning on television can be unreliable, the association said, especially for those whose primary language is A.S.L.

In the United States, more than 37 million adults, or about 15 percent of people 18 and over, report some trouble hearing, according to the National Institutes of Health. For many who are deaf or hard of hearing, the pandemic has already made life more complicated.

The lawsuit states that “A.S.L. is a complete and complex language distinct from English, with its own vocabulary and rules for grammar and syntax — it is not simply English in hand signals.”

The governors of all 50 states have provided in-frame sign language interpretation for their public briefings, according to the lawsuit. “All but a small handful continue to do so consistently,” as have other world leaders and the mayors of major cities across the nation, the lawsuit says.

“President Trump, however, does not,” the lawsuit says. “He now stands alone in holding televised briefings regarding the Covid-19 pandemic without ever having provided any A.S.L. interpretation.”

Mr. Rosenblum noted that up until May 13, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York used a sign language interpreter only in the online streams of his daily coronavirus briefings, not in the television broadcasts.

“This rendered the television broadcast inaccessible for those who rely on A.S.L. and do not have internet access,” Mr. Rosenblum said.

Mr. Cuomo added the interpreter to the broadcasts only after he was compelled to do so by a federal judge in response to a lawsuit filed by Disability Rights New York, an advocacy group.

As far as the White House briefings are concerned, Mr. Rosenblum said on Tuesday that “every day there is a delay puts more and more deaf and hard of hearing people at risk.”

“Access cannot be an afterthought,” he said. “Especially not when lives are at risk.”


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