White House Sued For Not Providing Sign Language Interpreter At COVID-19 Briefings

President Donald Trump speaks about the coronavirus in the Rose Garden of the White House, Friday, May 15, 2020, in Washington. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, right, and White House coronavirus response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx listen.

An advocacy group for deaf Americans is suing the White House for failing to provide real-time sign language interpretation during COVID-19 news briefings, saying the omission violates the First Amendment and laws for Americans with disabilities.

The National Association of the Deaf says in a federal lawsuit filed Monday that President Donald Trump and his White House coronavirus task force briefings have not featured an American Sign Language interpreter visible on-screen, known as “televised in frame ASL interpretation,” since the briefings began in March.

By failing to provide an interpreter, the administration is blocking “access to critical, potentially life-saving information conveyed by our nation’s political and public health leaders during the COVID-19 pandemic,” the lawsuit contends.

Closed captioning, required by federal law, is not a sufficient alternative because it is prone to error and can be hard to follow in real time, especially for people whose first language is not English, the suit says.

In addition, as the lawsuit explains, “tone is also often lost in written captions. By contrast, an interpreter is able to convey tone and context of a message through facial expressions, sign choice, and demeanor.”

The group says the governors of all 50 states and mayors of many major cities have provided on-screen ASL interpreters during their COVID-19 briefings. More than 3.4 million Americans identify as deaf, and about 17 million report having “serious difficulty hearing,” according to a 2014 census survey of Americans with disabilities.

Several governors faced lawsuits for initially failing to consistently provide on-screen sign language interpreters during their televised coronavirus updates.

Deaf New Yorkers and disability rights advocates sued Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) for not having an on-screen ASL interpreter at his widely viewed news briefings in April, when New York was the epicenter of the pandemic in the U.S. A judge ordered Cuomo to do so two weeks later, and he has provided one in his briefings since.

In Florida, which has become a U.S. coronavirus hot spot, the National Association of the Deaf and Disability Rights Florida last month sued Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), saying he had provided ASL interpretation at his briefings only sporadically.

“President Trump, however, does not,” Monday’s lawsuit says. “He now stands alone in holding televised briefings regarding the COVID-19 pandemic without ever having provided any ASL interpretation. This means that not only are [deaf and hard-of-hearing] Americans being denied the opportunity to understand any communication from the President of the United States during this critical time, they are also being denied the opportunity to access information, analysis, and updates from Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx — two renowned public health experts.”

Since March, the White House has ignored demands from advocacy groups and lawmakers, including 34 senators, to provide an on-screen sign language interpreter.

In a letter to the White House on March 18, the National Association of the Deaf said it had “received daily complaints from deaf and hard of hearing citizens across the country asking why their President is not ensuring they are getting the same access to emergency information as everyone else.”