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A Historic Win for the Deaf Community

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White House press secretary Jen Psaki speaks a press briefing at the White House in Washington on Feb. 1, 2020. (Yuri Gripas/Abaca Press/TNS)

By Jennifer Morrison

An unfortunate lack of ASL interpreters has been the case for most of the history of the White House at press briefings where many issues are discussed, up until January 25th, 2021. In an effort to provide proper accommodation to the roughly 600,000 deaf people living in the U.S., the Biden administration is including American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters in all White House press briefings. White House press secretary Jen Psaki announced during a press briefing that going forward, the regular press briefings will contain an ASL interpreter. 

“(President Joe Biden) is committed to building an America that is more inclusive, more just, and more accessible for every American, including Americans with disabilities and their families,” Psaki stated during the press briefing. She also told reporters that the decision to include ASL interpreters was “part of this administration’s accessibility and inclusion efforts.” 

This has been a huge win for the Deaf community. 

“There is more work to be done, but this is a great day for inclusion and access for the deaf and hard of hearing community,” The Nation Association of the Deaf (NAD) said in a statement, also calling this move a “historic win.” 

GRCC Professor Julia Shields is the seventh of eight kids in her family. All of her other siblings are hearing, except her. She attended a deaf school in Grand Rapids called Shawnee Park, from Kindergarten through sixth grade, where she learned how to speak and lipread, essentially how to “hear.” 

“To be honest with you, l grew up learning how to read closed captions,” Shields said. “It’s nice that they’re thinking of the Deaf community because some Deaf people don’t understand English.” The language can be tough to learn with all the different vocabulary words and grammar rules, so closed captions are not helpful to everyone.

“As for the White House, I’m surprised that they are including an interpreter now, not a long time ago and in the previous presidencies. Of course Deaf people are happy and thrilled,” Shields said. “In English [closed captioning] there is no expression. There is no voice tone. While if you look at the interpreter, they are very expressive. You can better make the connection of the voice tone with an interpreter compared to the captions. If a politician or an actor is showing emotion, the caption doesn’t say anything about it, while the interpreter does. It’s two different languages and ASL is very visual.”

Essentially, to Deaf people who use ASL as their primary language, reading closed captioning leaves out a massive part of the message. Contrary to popular belief, ASL is not just the moving of hands. Nearly 55% of ASL is communicated through the face. There are different speeds, spatial differences, and different mouth morphemes that determine tone, emotion, energy, and more. All of those are important factors that words on a screen cannot convey. Prior to Jan. 25, that’s all that deaf and hard of hearing individuals were given during White House press briefings, flat words on a screen. 

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects deaf and hard of hearing individuals. Legally, deaf and hard of hearing people must have fair treatment and equal information as hearing people. Shields said she is thankful for the ADA laws in place, as it has directly impacted her and her family.

“For example, if I call to make a doctor’s appointment and I have to ask for the interpreter, they’ll tell me I have to pay for it. They have to pay for it, it’s ADA law.’” Shields emphasized the importance of being an advocate for herself. 

“I’m trying to be an advocate for myself,” she said. “I’m good at it. I just wish there were more deaf people who could be advocating for themselves, but they can’t, they don’t know how to, or they don’t want to.” 

The announcement for ASL interpreters at the daily White House press briefings is a major win for the deaf community as a whole. Not only are they now treated fairly with equal services, but they are also now having representation in the White House. The fact that this is a win shall remain, even with all the controversy surrounding the first ASL interpreter. Heather Mewshaw was the interpreter for the briefing where Psaki made the announcement, and Heather interpreted virtually. Afterward, news quickly broke that Mewshaw interprets for far-right groups who have spread misinformation about the coronavirus and the legitimacy of the presidential election. 

“I know there is a burning discussion in the deaf community about Heather,” Shields began to explain, although she is a little behind on all of this controversy. “Because of the conflict of interest, deaf people are going nuts and are very upset about the whole thing.” 

Shields mentioned that many people in the deaf community believe that Mewshaw should have declined the job and suggested that the White House find someone who was either a Democrat, to go along with the President, or an interpreter who is unbiased.

“Imagine what harm she could cause… literally holding the message in her hands,” tweeted deaf actor and model Nyle DiMarco. DiMarco, along with many other people in the Deaf community raised questions as to whether Mewshaw’s interpretation could be trusted.

Mewshaw has not interpreted for the White House since that Monday. On Feb. 5, Heather Mewshaw released a statement saying that people “without evidence or merit, chose to cast aspersions (attacks) against my ability to be objective and impartial because of my involvement in a conservative social media group.” She said that she is a Child of Deaf Adults (CODA) and has spent her entire life fighting for deaf rights to have access to the same information as hearing people. She said that she had spent 21 years as a Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) certified ASL interpreter and her work speaks for itself.” The Daily Moth, a deaf and hard of hearing news outlet, reported on Feb. 5 in their news article and video entitled “Updates on Heather Mewshaw Interpreter Controversy.

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