White House ordered to make live sign language interpretation during coronavirus briefing available to TV networks

A federal judge on Wednesday ordered the White House to include a sign-language interpreter in its video feed of coronavirus briefings beginning October 1.

a woman looking at the camera: White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany speaks during a briefing in the Brady Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, DC on September 16, 2020.

© Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany speaks during a briefing in the Brady Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, DC on September 16, 2020.

The order means live video feeds available to TV networks will also now include American Sign Language interpretation.

“Defendants shall include a qualified ASL interpreter in the … feed for all White House coronavirus briefings,” DC District Court Judge James Boasberg wrote, either by putting an interpreter physically near whomever is speaking or by including within the frame a video of an interpreter located elsewhere.

If the latter, the White House will make footage of the remote interpreter available in a way that “allows the networks to include the qualified ASL interpreter in their live broadcasts,” Boasberg added.

The news follows a lawsuit filed by the National Association of the Deaf and five deaf Americans last month attempting to force President Donald Trump and other top officials to have American Sign Language interpreters at Covid-19 briefings. Boasberg had previously indicated earlier this month that the White House might have to do so.

NAD CEO Howard Rosenblum told CNN that Wednesday’s order “sets a great precedent to achieve this goal of full accessibility.”

“Sign language and accurate captioning are both essential and crucial to ensuring all deaf and hard of hearing people are well informed and are able to make better decisions on how to stay safe from the pandemic,” he said in a statement.

In their lawsuit filed last month, the plaintiffs alleged that the lack of live sign language interpretation at White House coronavirus briefings was against the law.

“By contrast (to written captions), an interpreter is able to convey tone and context of a message through facial expressions, sign choice, and demeanor,” the lawsuit said. “Further, the provision of live closed captioning frequently contains errors and omissions that make it difficult or impossible for (deaf and hard of hearing) individuals to understand the information being provided in the briefings, particularly if they are not fluent in English.”

Plaintiffs pointed out that governors in all 50 states have provided in-frame ASL interpretation during their public briefings on coronavirus.

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

According to court documents, since March, Trump and the coronavirus task force have not been seen with an ASL interpreter while addressing the American people during the pandemic, though the Trump administration has used interpreters in past briefings, including for hurricanes.

The federal government’s National Council on Disability and some members of Congress had already written to the White House requesting it add ASL interpreters. The US Census Bureau estimates that about 11.5 million Americans have some degree of hearing loss.

This story has been updated with additional information

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