Deaf Advocates Sue Trump Administration for Failing to Provide Interpreter

President Trump at a White House news conference earlier this year. Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

A Maryland-based non-profit that represents hearing-impaired Americans sued the Trump administration on Monday over its failure to provide a sign-language interpreter at its COVID-19 news conferences.

The suit was filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. by the Silver Spring-based National Association of the Deaf on behalf of five people who rely on American Sign Language (ASL) to communicate.

The plaintiffs seek an injunction ordering the White House to begin “in frame” ASL interpretation immediately. Providing an interpreter for those conferences is required by law, lawyers for the plaintiffs said in court documents.

Ian S. Hoffman, an attorney at the plaintiffs’ law firm, Arnold and Porter, said that while all 50 governors and many mayors have sign-language interpreters at their side or in an on-screen graphic, the president and his team have never made their coronavirus briefings available to hearing-impaired persons.

He said the National Association of the Deaf, other organizations that represent deaf people and several members of Congress reached out to the White House early in the pandemic, requesting in-frame interpretation — but received no response.

“For abstract matters like all of the issues related to the pandemic – its impact and vaccines and the economy – relying on closed captioning is very difficult,” Hoffman said.

“Especially when the event is happening live, it can be difficult for the text to keep up.”

In addition to the president and vice president, White House briefings routinely feature Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Disease, and Dr. Deborah Birx, the coordinator of the United States Government Activities to Combat HIV/AIDS.

All five plaintiffs attempted to watch White House coronavirus briefings on television but couldn’t follow them because of the lack of an ASL interpreter, the lawsuit claims.

Two of the five lead state-based organizations for the deaf and were unable to answer questions from their membership because they “did not have access to the information” themselves. 

Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) has had an ASL interpreter at his COVID-19 news conferences since the pandemic began. Jimmy Beldon, his most frequent interpreter, developed a large fan base due to his crisp, expressive style.

Beldon was the subject of a feature story in the Baltimore Sun and Hogan presented him with a citation in honor of his work.

Hoffman said it’s “discouraging” that — 30 years after the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act — deaf people are effectively shut out of the federal government’s highest-level briefings during a pandemic. 

“The country has come a long with issues of access but there’s still a long way to go,” he said.

Arnold and Porter is representing the National Association of the Deaf on a pro bono basis.

An email to the White House press office was not immediately returned on Tuesday.

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