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Lawmakers ask that a sign-language interpreter be added to the White House's popular coronavirus press briefings

Rep. Mark Takano
  • Sarah Katz is a freelance writer who covers the intersection between disability and mental heath, relationships, entertainment, and public services.
  • The Congressional Deaf Caucus, chaired by Reps. Takano and John Rutherford, sent a letter to Mike Pence urging that the White House have sign language interpreters at its public health press briefings.
  • The Caucus includes 28 members of Congress, including 2 Republicans and 26 Democrats.
  • While governors and local officials in all 50 states have had sign language interpreters at their briefings, the White House has not.
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The Congressional Deaf Caucus is fighting to have sign language interpreters at all televised White House public health press briefings.
The chairs of the caucus, Reps. Mark Takano and John Rutherford, sent a letter to Vice President Mike Pence today urging him to have sign language interpreters at all White House press briefings on COVID-19 so that deaf and hard of hearing individuals have equal access to information related to the coronavirus. It was also signed by six additional members of the Caucus, including Reps. French Hill (R-Ark.), John Larson (D-Conn.), Dave Loebsack (D-Iowa), Alan Lowenthal (D-California), Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), and Joseph Morelle (D-N.Y.).
"The use of sign language interpreters is crucial to ensuring that this unique population is provided with the same information as the rest of the country to help slow the spread, flatten the curve, and ultimately prevent loss of life," the letter reads.
Governors and local officials in all 50 states are now providing sign language interpreters during their briefings since the National Association of the Deaf — the largest deaf civil rights organization in the US — shared its press release responding to member concerns about access to briefings last month. But the White House has never provided sign language interpreters during its own press conferences about the virus, even though several federal laws mandate the provision of access to emergency services to deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals during a crisis, including the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The caucus's letter joins multiple other letters sent to the White House, including letters sent by Democratic Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Bob Casey Jr. (D-PA), and Rep. Donna Shalala (FL-27), the NAD, and the National Council on Disability last month.
Deaf celebrities, including Marlee Matlin, have also urged the White House to include qualified sign language interpreters at its briefings.
"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," Matlin, the Academy Award-winning actress, tweeted. "Can you do the same, PLEASE?"
Rep. Takano and former Rep. Kevin Yoder founded the caucus in 2013 to "help bridge the communication divide between Members of Congress and their Deaf and Hard of Hearing constituents, as well as empower these individuals by promoting equal access for all," Rep. Takano said in an exclusive email interview with Business Insider. It has 28 members of Congress, including two Republicans and 26 Democrats.
"[E]veryone deserves to have equal access to the government and I am glad to see that this effort is only getting stronger," Rep. Takano said. "As the representative for the California School for the Deaf in Riverside, California, I want to make sure that all of my constituents' needs are taken into consideration and are advocated for in Congress."
He added, "During this pandemic, we are witnessing how important it is for all communications and public briefings to be accessible to everyone. We cannot allow any gaps in relaying information to the American people, and that's why we are urging the Trump Administration to have ASL interpreters at every public briefing on COVID-19 … The Deaf and Hard of Hearing community should not be waiting any longer to be up to speed on the latest developments surrounding this pandemic."
The NAD's chief executive officer, Howard Rosenblum, told Business Insider that, while White House briefings are live-captioned, and captioning provides crucial access to information about the coronavirus for many deaf and hard of hearing Americans, American Sign Language is a primary language for some of them, whose grammar is distinct from English.
"For this population, it is not enough to share emergency communications in English," he said. "The same information must be shared in ASL. Unfortunately, for many emergencies in the past, press conferences have failed to use qualified professional interpreters to render the shared information in ASL."
He added that the exclusion of sign language interpreters from White House press briefings is barring deaf and hard-of-hearing Americans from receiving vital information, putting them at higher risk of contracting the virus as well as making them a risk to others.
"We have received many complaints from deaf and hard-of-hearing people unable to understand from the briefings what they are supposed to do or avoid to stay healthy and we have given them tools to advocate for their communication access," he said.
At least 48 million individuals in the US are deaf and hard-of-hearing, and they use different communication modalities in addition to sign language, including Cued American English (via Cued Speech) as well as spoken and written English. The NAD encourages all government agencies and media entities to review its position statement on how to make emergency communications accessible to deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals, and to implement its recommendations.
It's important to note that while many briefings at the state and local level have included sign language interpreters, they aren't without accessibility barriers for deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers. This week, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo was sued for not having sign language interpreters at his live press briefings.
According to Rosenblum, Gov. Cuomo has had interpreters during his web broadcast, but not during his televised broadcast.
"Doing so leaves out deaf and hard-of-hearing people who may not have internet access but have TVs and were unable to have access to his broadcast," Rosenblum said.
Members of the deaf and hard-of-hearing community can communicate issues to the Congressional Deaf Caucus by reaching out to members of Congress, including the chairs, on their official websites.
SEE ALSO: The deaf community is facing new barriers as we navigate inaccessible face masks and struggle to follow news broadcasts and teleconferences — but the tools for accessibility are out there
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