Deaf association sues White House for not providing ASL interpreter at COVID-19 briefings

U.S. President Donald Trump arrives to speak at a news conference in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House on August 3, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

The National Association of the Deaf is suing the White House, asking a federal judge to order the Trump administration to provide a live televised American Sign Language interpretation for viewers of the public coronavirus briefings who are deaf and hard of hearing.

“The White House’s failure to provide ASL interpreters during COVID-19 related briefings, including press briefings, is against the law,“ the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit lists five Americans who are deaf as plaintiffs. 

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According to the civil action lawsuit filed on Aug. 3, the White House’s “refusal to provide in-frame ASL interpretation violates the First Amendment.” 

"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 lawsuit reads. 

"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."

President Donald Trump, the lawsuit continues, "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,“ the lawsuit reads.

“As more than 4.7 million Americans have been infected with coronavirus with more than 150,000 dead, deaf and hard of hearing people are more at risk to being affected with the coronavirus. They are often left behind with the latest updates and actions the U.S. government has taken to address this pandemic,” the NAD said in a statement.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit. 

In late July, Trump resumed his coronavirus briefings, which were once daily events early on in the pandemic before being discontinued. His daily turns behind the White House briefing room podium largely ended in late April after the president’s off-the-cuff suggestion that injecting toxic disinfectant could help treat the coronavirus.

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Ahead of the return to the briefings, White House deputy press secretary Sarah Matthews said Trump would use them “to speak directly to the American people about the federal government’s coronavirus response and other pertinent issues.”

Other officials have previously been sued for not providing sign language at their televised coronavirus briefings, including New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis during the early onset of the coronavirus pandemic. Now, all 50 states’ governors have provided ASL interpretation for their public briefings on the coronavirus, according to the NAD.

The Associated Press contributed to this story. This story was reported from Los Angeles.