Deaf Americans Fight for Sign Language in White House Pandemic Briefings

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, center, made a guest appearance at a coronavirus press briefing hosted by Governor Andrew Cuomo in May. A sign language interpreter is pictured on the right.

WASHINGTON (CN) — The National Association of the Deaf urged a federal judge in Washington on Wednesday to protect the civil rights of deaf Americans and order the Trump administration to include live American Sign Language interpretation in White House briefings on Covid-19. 

The Justice Department argued such an order would have broad implications and mark a departure from historical practice in the White House press room.

“Every advance of civil rights is preceded by ‘this has never been done before,’” responded Ian S. Hoffman, an Arnold and Porter attorney representing the five deaf Americans who brought the case along with the National Association of the Deaf. 

“Right, exactly,” U.S. District Judge James E. Boasberg said, adding he hopes to issue an order on the motion for a preliminary injunction by next week. 

Justice Department attorney David Michael Morrell argued the Obama appointee should reject the request for the White House to immediately begin televised in-frame ASL interpretation, calling it “truly remarkable.” 

He also argued challenges would arise given White House briefings cover a range of issues beyond just the coronavirus outbreak. 

The judge recognized the concern and told the government: “It would be hard for you to distinguish the importance of a corona briefing from a briefing on a war or a natural disaster.”

In reassurance, Hoffman said the plaintiffs’ only concern was with the ability of deaf and hard of hearing Americans to access up-to-date information on the global health crisis. 

Supporting the claim that new civil rights protections are often met with frustrated cries of them being historically unprecedented, Boasberg offered a supporting argument to the plaintiffs. 

“Isn’t what you want to say, ‘So are ramps in a public building the departure from historical practice?’” the judge said to Hoffman. 

The National Association of the Deaf filed the lawsuit against President Donald Trump, the office of Vice President Mike Pence and Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany earlier this month. 

They argued Trump stands alone in holding televised briefings on the pandemic without an ASL interpreter on screen, a practice all 50 governors and many mayors of America’s largest cities have kept up during the pandemic. 

But the government argued Wednesday that the deaf Americans suing the White House lack the ability to challenge the briefing procedure based on claims of meaningful access to public information. 

“The briefings themselves are a purely discretionary act of the president in the White House,” Morrell said.

He argued the White House uploads captioned videos and transcripts of press briefings on its official website, generally within a few hours, and there is no evidence the plaintiffs have found those practices to be unsatisfactory. 

But Hoffman said it is indisputable that the plaintiffs have standing for injunctive relief. As for written captions, he reminded the judge that for many deaf Americans whose primary language is ASL, English is at best a second language. 

“It is not simply English in hand signals,” the Aug. 3 lawsuit states. 

While the briefings are also available to watch live on YouTube with closed captioning, the plaintiffs further argued written captions frequently contain errors and omissions, and that tone is often lost to the viewer. 

“By contrast, an interpreter is able to convey tone and context of a message through facial expressions, sign choice, and demeanor,” the complaint states.

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