Advocates for the Deaf Sue White House Over Virus Briefings

President Donald Trump leaves after speaking at a July 23 news conference at the White House. White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany is at left. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Five deaf Americans sued the White House on Monday for failing to include American Sign Language interpreters in daily briefings on the pandemic, emphasizing that every state in the country is observing this basic access right. 

Together with the National Association of the Deaf, the individual plaintiffs filed the federal complaint within a week of the president’s return to holding nightly outbreak briefings from the White House press room. 

The organization specifically names Dr. Deborah Birx and Dr. Anthony Fauci, White House coronavirus response coordinator and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, respectively, as individuals providing critical information not accessible without ASL interpretation. 

In addition to noting that every state provides in-frame ASL interpretation on a nearly consistent basis, the challengers note that the practice has also been embraced by the mayors of America’s largest cities and leaders from around the world.

“President Trump, however, does not,” the suit states. “He now stands alone in holding televised briefings regarding the Covid-19 pandemic without ever having provided any ASL Interpretation.”

The White House press office did not respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit filed in Washington, in which Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany is included as a defendant. 

Vice President Mike Pence’s office is named as a defendant as well, with the suit noting that 34 senators wrote Pence back in March to push for on-site translators.

“The White House has ignored these requests and continues to conduct briefings without any ASL interpretation,” the complaint states. 

Written captions are no substitute for an interpreter working live during briefings to communicate the context of the message coming out of the White House, the challengers argue in seeking a preliminary injunction. 

Facial expressions, demeanor and selecting the best fitting sign to get across the spoken words all factor in when assessing accessibility for its members. 

“ASL 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 complaint states. 

Among the individual plaintiffs is Graham Forsey, 27, who is president of the District of Columbia Association of the Deaf. Several other American senior citizens who are deaf and rely on ASL as their first language also joined. 

Without an ASL interpreter at the White House, Forsey claims to have struggled to answer questions from members of the association on everything from the economic downturn during the outbreak to the development of a potential vaccine.

Monday’s lawsuit follows a federal judge back ordering New York Governor Andrew Cuomo in May to provide in-frame ASL interpreters during public briefings on Covid-19. 

“As the court explained, ‘Without immediate implementation of an in-frame ASL interpreter, Plaintiffs and other similarly situated deaf New Yorkers will continue to be denied timely access to critical information, leaving them less able to comply with current orders and advice, less able to prepare for the future, and more anxious about current conditions and the future,’” the complaint states.

The National Center for Health Statistics puts the number of American adults who report trouble hearing at 37.5 million, but the National Association for the Deaf estimates there are around 48 million deaf and hard-of-hearing people in the United States.

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