The daily press briefings from the White House have become an important source of information during the coronavirus pandemic, but some Americans are not able to access them. That’s because, unlike many state-run announcements, the White House does not provide an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter at their briefings. For months now, Deaf advocacy groups have been petitioning the White House to provide this crucial accessibility service, but it still has not happened.
“COVID-19 has exacerbated the educational, employment, and health disparities faced by deaf and hard of hearing individuals,” Chris Soukup, CEO of Communication Service for the Deaf (CSD), the world’s largest deaf-led social impact organization, told Refinery29 via email. “In a pandemic, information saves lives. It is critical that all Americans have full access to essential government communications, and understand how their actions will affect themselves and others.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are approximately 11.5 million Americans living with hearing loss of some kind, which is nearly 3.6% of the population. Deaf and hard of hearing (HOH) people say they are frustrated with the lack of accessibility at the White House’s press briefings. Back on March 18, the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) and the National Council on Disability (NCD) sent letters to then-White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham asking the White House coronavirus task force to use American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters during its briefings.
“From the first White House press conference on this coronavirus, the NAD 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,” Howard A. Rosenblum, NAD Chief Executive Officer, wrote. “We have been directing their complaints to your [press] office, and join in their concern for the lack of information for our community.”
Pls RT. 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. Can you do the same, PLEASE? #noaccess #ADA #asl #cdi
— Marlee Matlin (@MarleeMatlin) March 19, 2020
Many states — including Virginia, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Maryland, and California — provide interpreters during their governors’ briefings. “Often, the barrier in bringing in a [Certified Deaf Interpreter] to interpret the press conference has to do with educating the requestors about the value of providing this access to the large Deaf community,” Rupert Dubler, the certified Deaf interpreter who has been alongside Gov. Charlie Baker during his coronavirus briefings, told WBUR.
Tired of waiting for the White House, some Deaf advocacy organizations have stepped up to provide their community with what they need. CSD, DPAN.TV, Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) and CONVO are providing live American Sign Language interpretation and closed captioning of the White House Coronavirus Task Force briefings via Facebook Live, something they started at the beginning of this month.
Each organization is providing a different element of the live ASL interpretations: CSD is providing Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART) services, known as real-time captioning; DPAN is providing the live streaming capabilities; and RID and CONVO are providing the ASL interpreters.
“Nothing is more critical for our community to combat this global pandemic than breaking down all communications barriers and ensuring deaf individuals get equal access to important and reliable information in their own language,” Soukup, CEO of CSD, said in a press release provided to Refinery29. “We could wait no longer for others who are responsible to implement these rightful accommodations as we face this life-threatening crisis.”
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