POV: A New Age for Equal Access and the Deaf Community
Biden administration announcement that all White House press briefings will include an ASL interpreter has set a high bar for the rest of the country
Recently, the White House’s new press secretary, Jen Psaki, announced that all White House press briefings will include an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter. This announcement signals a new age for equal access and the deaf community, and is in stark contrast to the previous administration’s disregard for the rights of deaf citizens to have access to communication from our government. The Biden administration has set a high bar for the rest of the country by recognizing that language is power, a giant leap forward to addressing the lack of access experienced by the deaf community in this country on a daily basis.
The deaf community, as a cultural and linguistic minority, fights for linguistic equality and access every day. Many assume that closed captions alone provide sufficient access, but this is not the case. ASL is the native language of many deaf people in the United States, and so direct access to information in ASL is critical.
Former President Donald Trump refused to provide an ASL interpreter during his entire tenure, forcing the National Association of the Deaf to sue the administration. A federal court judge ordered Trump to provide an interpreter, at minimum, to include access for hundreds of thousands of deaf people to briefings providing information on the COVID-19 pandemic, stating in his opinion: “Captioning in English is not accessible for many deaf and hard of hearing people who use a different language, ASL. With their lives at risk due to the pandemic, it is important to provide the information in ASL so that deaf and hard of hearing people have access to this information.”
Unfortunately, the Biden administration’s first foray into this new age resulted in a brief gaffe when the first interpreter hired turned out to be a well-known alt-right activist. She appeared across social media touting MAGA propaganda and volunteered with a group called Right Side ASL (which changed its name to The Hands of Liberty after its previous page was flagged and blocked by Facebook), which spread misinformation regarding the outcome of the 2020 election. This interpreter was certified by the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID)—the national organization responsible for establishing the standard of quality for interpreters. The RID code of conduct stipulates that individuals do not engage in an interpreting role when there is a real or perceived conflict of interest. In this case, the fact that this interpreter had volunteered to interpret for an organization that promoted misinformation constitutes a conflict of interest.
This misstep does not, and should not, take away from the intention of the Biden administration to provide access to all deaf Americans in their native language, ASL. And to their credit, they quickly remedied the issue by hiring Elsie Stecker, the founder of ASLIZED.org, who is not only a qualified ASL interpreter, but also a certified deaf interpreter (CDI). CDIs are certified through the RID and are themselves deaf or hard of hearing interpreters who have a thorough understanding of the deaf community and deaf culture, and have native or near-native sign language skills. They have obtained specialized training that provides them with additional proficiency to enhance communication in a way that non–native signers are not able to produce.
This move to using a CDI highlights the power of access to the deaf community through the hands of a native deaf professional interpreter. In Massachusetts, Governor Charlie Baker has led the way with his commitment to equality for the deaf community by hiring a CDI for every one of his coronavirus briefings since the pandemic began—perhaps yet another example that the commonwealth of Massachusetts is not afraid to lead the way in doing what is right.
The more people who are educated about ASL and deaf culture, the stronger the impact on our society. This affects changes in laws and ultimately our access to information nationwide.
Here at BU, the Wheelock College of Education & Human Development Deaf Studies Program, with its ASL and deaf culture classes, is a stepping-stone to informing the greater society of language and access needs.
Having the White House acknowledge ASL and the deaf community’s needs is a milestone for our community. The new administration has set a high bar for others, and as members of the Deaf Studies and ASL programs at BU, where advocating for the deaf community is our mission, we applaud their actions. We see the new administration’s step to include ASL as a positive sign of more change to come with regard to the rights and recognition of all members of our society.
“POV” is an opinion page that provides timely commentaries from students, faculty, and staff on a variety of issues: on-campus, local, state, national, or international. Anyone interested in submitting a piece, which should be about 700 words long, should contact John O’Rourke at firstname.lastname@example.org. BU Today reserves the right to reject or edit submissions. The views expressed are solely those of the author and are not intended to represent the views of Boston University.