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In response to a lawsuit brought by a Maryland-based organization representing deaf people, lawyers for the Justice Department rebuffed claims that the White House is required by law to provide on-screen interpreters during COVID-19 news conferences.
The Trump administration filing argued that the White House press room is a small space with limited seating, that the podium “is not easily moved due to electrical wiring that runs through it,” and that even if the government hired an American Sign Language interpreter, there is no guarantee that the television networks, who control the cameras, would choose to put the signer in the frame.
The Justice Department lawyers said that transcripts are posted online “within hours of the briefings.” They said the Trump administration’s failure to provide realtime ASL interpretation, something most governors do, is consistent with the practice of other presidents.
The case, National Association of the Deaf, et al, v. Donald J. Trump, et al, was filed earlier this month in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. The non-profit, which is based in Silver Spring, launched its legal challenge on behalf of five deaf people, two of whom lead state-based organizations that assist people with auditory challenges.
The suit was filed after months of outreach to administration officials, including spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany, in which Trump aides were urged to provide on-screen ASL interpretation. The advocates asserted that failure to do so represented a violation of the 30-year-old Americans with Disabilities Act.
Their quest attracted the attention of People magazine, which quoted Academy award-winning deaf actress Marlee Matlin as calling the lack of an interpreter for White House COVID-19 briefings “appalling.” Matlin was a guest contestant on “The Celebrity Apprentice,” which Trump hosted, in 2011.
In its suit, the organization argued that closed-captioning is riddled with errors and frequently is unable to keep up with the statements being offered.
In their rebuttal to the Justice Department’s filing, lawyers for the association said that people who do not speak English cannot follow closed captioning because “English and ASL are different languages and thus, for many deaf persons, English is a foreign language, especially for complex topics like the coronavirus.”
“Closed captions and after-the-fact transcripts written in a foreign language do not provide such persons with meaningful access to the briefings,” lawyers for the NAD added.
Much of the filings involve procedural matters.
The Justice Department argued that “as a threshold matter, Plaintiffs cannot identify a federal cause of action that permits their lawsuit.”
Lawyers for the association rejected those assertions.
“According to Defendants… even if the White House intentionally discriminates against people with disabilities, the victims would have no judicial recourse whatsoever,” they wrote.
“That position is extreme and unwarranted, and far beyond what Congress intended when it amended the Rehabilitation Act for the specific purpose of prohibiting discrimination by Executive agencies. The White House is not above the law.”
The plaintiffs are being represented by Arnold and Porter, a powerhouse D.C. law firm, pro bono. The lawsuit is still pending.