WASHINGTON (CN) — The Trump administration may have violated federal law by not including American Sign Language interpretation in televised briefings on the coronavirus pandemic, a federal judge in Washington ruled Wednesday.
U.S. District Judge James Boasberg granted temporary relief that will require the White House to include in-frame ASL interpretation, already adopted by the governors of all 50 states in their Covid-19 video broadcasts, pending final judgment in the case.
The judge found “there is little debate” that deaf Americans would suffer irreparable harm — the threshold to warrant injunctive relief — if denied timely access to critical information on the pandemic.
At no point did the White House argue that providing an ASL interpreter to guarantee access would be too burdensome, the Obama appointee wrote in a 25-page opinion.
“The Court also agrees with Plaintiffs that it is in the public interest for them to receive up-to-date information during the pandemic . . . particularly given the rapidly evolving science on the nature of the virus’s spread,” Boasberg wrote.
The National Association of the Deaf along with five deaf individuals sued President Donald Trump and Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany last month, with the nonprofit saying it received hundreds of complaints from deaf and hard-of-hearing Americans who can’t access critical information during the deadly outbreak.
The lawsuit argues the White House violated the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, specifically Section 504, by failing to ensure full accessibility for these individuals.
While the Justice Department argued last month that the White House Press Office includes live closed captioning of briefings, the plaintiffs said that does not meet the need.
“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 filed Aug. 3 states.
Boasberg agreed based in part on a recent ruling by a New York judge that government officials must provide in-frame ASL interpreters during public briefings on the pandemic.
“Closed captioning and transcripts may constitute a reasonable accommodation under some circumstances, but not here. As another court explained in rejecting a state government’s similar arguments, these ‘accommodations — however well-intentioned — simply do not provide “meaningful access in the circumstances [presented] here”,’” Boasberg wrote.
Both the White House and Justice Department were not available to comment on the ruling passed down Wednesday.
The lawsuit specifies that without an interpreter on the scene, deaf Americans are missing out on critical information from Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease expert, and Dr. Deborah Birx who leads the White House Coronavirus Task Force.
The judge opted to stay the order mandating ASL interpretation until after holding a hearing to determine the best way for the White House to fulfill its obligation, including whether to have an ASL interpreter physically near the speaker or interpreting in a simultaneous live feed.
He made clear his decision applies only to the White House and not media outlets that broadcast the press briefings, but added that the government could arguably “provide the video of that same ASL interpreter to media outlets or enable those outlets to film the interpreter at the same time that the White House does.”
“But the Court again imposes no mandate on the media,” Boasberg wrote.
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