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Howard ~ Deaf Community

“At least 48 million Americans are deaf or hard of hearing, The White House did not provide an ASL interpreter during their frequent press conferences on coronavirus throughout the spring and summer. "

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What has been particularly challenging in 2020 for people who are deaf or hard of hearing? How has NAD responded to help the hard-of-hearing community in 2020?

The pandemic has turned the world upside down, in every possible way. It has impacted us in our personal lives, our jobs, and those around us as well as brought to light unfortunate situations that could have been avoided. During the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, we have observed a concerning lack of access across many different contexts. A big barrier has been that many government press briefings were not accessible to deaf and hard of hearing people, and to address this issue, we have been focused on advocating for American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters and accurate captioning in all broadcasts of such emergency briefings. We have received many complaints from deaf and hard of hearing people unable to understand from the briefings what they are supposed to do or avoid to stay safe and healthy. The information found in many government resources is not accessible to many deaf and hard of hearing people, especially those who use ASL as their first language which is a distinct language from English. To fill this void and to address new communication barriers that have arisen as a result of this pandemic, we have given them tools to advocate for their communication access.

Too often in emergencies, government agencies disseminate critical time-sensitive information through various forms of media but fail to ensure that the information shared is fully accessible to all. This is particularly true for deaf and hard of hearing people, who are often left behind during such disasters and emergencies. There are at least 48 million deaf and hard of hearing people in the country, and yet they are often forgotten during these crises.

Televised news is often the most reliable way to get the message out. However, while much of television is captioned as required by law and enforced by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), there is not the same mandate for live news broadcasts. All national level news broadcasts must be captioned including live broadcasts, but the local news are only live captioned in the top 25 markets. All other local news usually do not provide live, accurate captioning of their broadcasts as most of them recycle the teleprompter script as captioning, and that does not include breaking news which is what most emergency broadcasts entail. Consequently, many deaf and hard of hearing people are unable to receive accurate information from their local news broadcasts, which gives them more localized information than the national news. The FCC does mandate that live captioning be provided in emergencies and disasters, but this requirement is not usually followed.

Often, such televised news is converted into digital media that is circulated on the Internet and on social media by the news stations. Pursuant to the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA), such digital versions of the broadcast news must retain the captioning when shared via the Internet or social media. Unfortunately, in many cases, those digital versions are captioned through “Automated Speech Recognition” (ASR) technology instead of being professionally captioned by a trained expert. ASR basically means that a computer is used to generate captioning, often without editing to ensure accuracy. This often renders such captioning useless for the most part. The solution is to ensure that every live broadcast involving emergency communication has a highly qualified and professional captioning company working to provide accurate captioning. This can be done on Social Media platforms as well, every form of media used for emergency communication should be made accessible with captioning and ASL interpreters.

In addition, there are many deaf and hard of hearing individuals whose primary language is American Sign Language (ASL), a language completely distinct from English. Many of these deaf and hard of hearing individuals are not able to understand English, and this especially so when the information is complex and advanced such as information about health pandemics. For this population, it is not enough to share emergency communications in English. The same information must be shared in ASL. Unfortunately, for many emergencies in the past, press conferences have failed to use qualified professional interpreters to render the shared information in ASL.

Since our press release on April 6, 2020, all 50 states’ Governors have provided ASL interpreters at their press conferences, and we are monitoring the situation to ensure that this continues and that the interpreters provided are qualified. There have been challenges, such as Governor Cuomo showing the ASL interpreters only on the Internet and not on TV, but a lawsuit was brought which compelled showing the interpreter on TV as well. However, the interpreter is shown on a small picture-in-picture which is not big enough for deaf people to see clearly. The whole point is for the interpreter’s signing to be visible enough. The NAD is advocating for a larger size for the interpreter’s frame on television, and hope this will be remedied soon. In addition, some of the governors have not used interpreters consistently, so we are advocating that interpreters always be present during such press conferences. We are also seeing problems with county and local government and health officials not providing interpreters during their press conferences. We have also seen situations where the government officials are hiring clearly unqualified persons claiming to be interpreters, and we encourage all government agencies to screen all interpreters to ensure they have the appropriate qualifications and strongly encourage the hiring of Certified Deaf Interpreters (CDIs) to be used.

Notwithstanding the fact that at least 48 million Americans are deaf or hard of hearing, The White House did not provide an ASL interpreter during their frequent press conferences on coronavirus throughout the spring and summer. In September, we filed a lawsuit resulting in a federal district court ordering the White House to provide American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters, live streamed on its website (, for all public briefings held by the President, Vice President, and Press Secretary that address the COVID-19 pandemic -- starting on October 1, 2020. The order requires that an ASL interpreter be provided at any coronavirus briefing held on White House grounds or at any federal agency. The Court has also ordered the White House to make the interpreter feed available to all TV networks in a manner that will allow those networks to show the interpreter in their live feeds. To date, the White House has provided ASL interpreters during a few coronavirus press briefings beginning on November 13th, but the ASL interpreter was only shown on their web streamed links and not on television. The advocacy work continues to ensure all coronavirus press briefings are shown with ASL interpreters on television.

In addition to advocating to ensure that there are ASL interpreters at all during those press conferences, we also have had to educate television stations to make sure that their camera crew includes the ASL interpreter in the camera shot. There have been many situations where the interpreters are only partially visible or completely left out of the camera shot, making them completely inaccessible for deaf and hard of hearing viewers.

More work needs to be done to ensure that every press conference including those done by mayors and other officials from local municipalities provide their information clearly with both quality captioning and qualified ASL interpreters.

With respect to medical care, deaf and hard of hearing people have always had difficulty with communication access and this is compounded now during the pandemic. When a deaf or hard of hearing patient is admitted to the hospital, medical professionals must find ways to ensure accessible communication for the patient because deaf and hard of hearing patients have a right to decide their care just like everyone else. Due to the pandemic, more and more medical professionals are treating COVID-19 patients from behind a barrier, using masks that impede lip-reading, and not allowing in-person interpreters. To address this change in safety precautions in medical settings, the NAD released guidelines for hospitals to consider when treating a deaf or hard of hearing patient. We also released guidelines for deaf and hard of hearing people to be able to communicate with their doctors through telehealth. Furthermore, we developed guidelines for deaf and hard of hearing students to participate in PreK-12 remote education.

We are also developing special guidelines to use during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic to ensure that there is accessibility for deaf and hard of hearing people in other areas such as: students being able to participate in their university studies; employees being able to participate in remote video meetings at their workplaces; and consumers being able to communicate with their lawyers and judges in remote video set-ups for courts.

To ensure deaf and hard of hearing Americans know what their rights are during this pandemic, people can explore Additionally, many deaf-led organizations are creating content about coronavirus in ASL to share what they know about the disease and the pandemic. Examples include: The Daily Moth, Health Signs Center, Deaf in Scrubs, and more. The demand is there, and the community is filling in this information on its own without any support from the federal government.

Deaf and hard of hearing people are affected by the pandemic, just like everyone else, but we’re not getting the same access to information, resources, and updates as others. Accurate captioning helps anyone and everyone. Appropriately assigned interpreters at press briefings avoids possible misunderstandings.

Are there certain situations in which masks present an especially difficult challenge (e.g., in hospitals, in grocery stores, in work settings)?

During a health threat such as a coronavirus, people should wear masks in public. Wearing masks gives people some protection. At the same time, many masks hide the lips and half of the face, which makes it harder to understand speech. It is also hard to understand sign language when the person is wearing a mask. Facial expressions are an important part of sign language. It is very important to wear masks to stay safe during a pandemic, but also very important that deaf and hard of hearing people can understand what everyone is saying. Our guidelines explain the best ways to communicate with deaf and hard of hearing people while following health recommendations.

The ubiquitous use of masks may be necessary for safety reasons, but it does hinder communications for 48 million deaf and hard of hearing people. This is a problem not only for lipreaders but also for those who do not lipread simply because being able to see the mouth movements and facial expressions are helpful cues to basic communications in various situations such as at the food store, bank, or other parts of daily life.

While people’s use of clear masks or clear face shields may make it easier for deaf and hard of hearing people to understand them, it is important to emphasize that the use of clear masks or face shields does not mean there is full accessibility for all deaf and hard of hearing people. Clear masks often are not clear enough for full comprehension even for expert lipreaders. Clear masks and face shields are nevertheless helpful to provide visual cues to assist with communications in limited situations. For real conversations, we recommend that other means of communications be provided, especially for complex discussions such as during medical and mental health visits, legal consultations, educational settings, court appearances, and work meetings. In other words, qualified professional sign language interpreters and/or professionally rendered captioning services should be provided.

The National Association of the Deaf (NAD) encourages the use of clear masks or face shields to make it easier to communicate, especially for deaf and hard of hearing people. While the NAD does not endorse any products, there is a company that makes clear masks that appear to meet federal requirements for medical use. Another company also makes clear masks but their website indicates that their masks are not approved for surgical use. We recognize that the demand for clear masks is more than those companies can meet and support any efforts to use makeshift clear masks for the time being. There are also other companies making clear face shields which often can be better for communication purposes as it allows deaf and hard of hearing people to see the entire face.

Most importantly, people should follow the CDC’s recommendations which currently are to remain at a social distance and wear a mask. Based on a scientific article, face shields could be a better option than wearing a cloth mask. If you need to communicate with a deaf or hard of hearing person and you are wearing a mask, write something down or use a high visibility notes app on your phone such as BIG (iOS) Big Word (Android), and Cardzilla (iOS, Android). Face shields are the best way to preserve the importance of face covering and still allow those who rely on lipreading to understand. Clear masks are the next best option. Short of these options, if the person who needs lipreading is at least six feet away, it may be possible to pull down the mask and move your mouths to allow lipreading at a safe distance. Hearing people can still be inclusive, even during this pandemic. Be willing to use white boards and/or phone apps to provide visible written communications. Obtain and use clear masks. And when you have online content, make sure it is fully accessible — consider captioning it properly (not automated captioning) and include the use of ASL interpreters.

-- Howard, National Association of the Deaf (December 2020).


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