First of all, how are the deaf and hard-of-hearing people doing in these COVID-19 times?
Howard A. Rosenblum: The pandemic has turned the world upside down, in every possible way. It has impacted us in our personal lives, jobs, and those around us and brought to light unfortunate situations that could have been avoided. During the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, we have observed a deficiency across different contexts. A significant barrier has been that many government press briefings were not accessible to deaf and hard-of-hearing people. 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 the briefings or 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 address new communication barriers that have arisen due to this pandemic, we have given them tools to advocate for their communication access.
For instance, 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 hospitals’ guidelines 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 also developed 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 communicating with deaf and hard-of-hearing consumers while wearing masks. We are also developing guidelines regarding 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 NAD.org/coronavirus. Additionally, many deaf-led organizations create 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 independently 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 avoid possible misunderstandings. The National Association of the Deaf (NAD) filed a lawsuit on August 3, 2020, to compel U.S. President Donald J. Trump and the White House to immediately begin providing American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters during television broadcasts of their coronavirus press conferences and briefings to make them accessible to deaf and hard-of-hearing people (original PR). Indeed, on September 9, 2020, the judge, in that case, ordered the White House to begin providing sign language interpreters for coronavirus press briefings subject to details to be hashed out between the parties and is ongoing.
Tell us about The National Association of the Deaf
Howard A. Rosenblum: The National Association of the Deaf (NAD) was founded in 1880 by deaf and hard-of-hearing leaders and is the USA’s oldest national civil rights organization. Since 1880, the NAD has been led by a board of directors comprised solely of deaf and hard-of-hearing people and executive directors who have all been deaf. Our mission is to preserve, protect, and promote the civil, human, and linguistic rights of all deaf and hard-of-hearing Americans.
The NAD provides several programs and services, including youth leadership camp and other youth programs; information and resources, online via web and social media, as well as through magazines; membership benefits; and advocacy, and legal services.
The NAD Headquarters is based in Silver Spring, Maryland, and is a national nonprofit serving 48 million deaf and hard-of-hearing Americans. Our services are geared towards all demographics within the deaf and hard-of-hearing community, including those from all geographic areas, all racial and ethnic groups, all educational levels, all sexual identities and orientations, all ages, all socioeconomic backgrounds, all modes of communication, deaf people who have other disabilities, and also deaf people with other intersectionalities. The needs of different demographics within the deaf and hard-of-hearing community vary widely, and we strive to serve all their needs to the best of our ability.
With respect to our budget, which varies year by year, you can view our previous annual reports. Individual and organizational membership makes it possible for the NAD to ensure that the American deaf and hard-of-hearing community’s collective interests are seen and represented among our nation’s policymakers and opinion leaders at the federal level. The NAD is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization supported by the generosity of individual and organizational donors, including corporations and foundations.
What would a deaf-friendly disaster response look like?
Howard A. Rosenblum: It has been well documented that the deaf and hard-of-hearing population often experiences the most difficulty when it comes to preparing for and recovering from emergencies and disasters. To address this gap, the NAD urges all government agencies to implement the recommendations provided in our emergency communication position statement. The NAD has a position statement on how to make emergency communication accessible. We ask that all government agencies and media entities read and implement the recommendations in this statement. FEMA has recently issued guidance materials that are in line with our recommendations; see their guidelines on video production and livestreaming emergency briefings.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects deaf and hard-of-hearing people, and how are you coping?
Howard A. Rosenblum: Too often in emergencies, government agencies disseminate critical time-sensitive information through various media forms 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, 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 no 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. Most of them recycle the teleprompter script as captioning, which 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 national news. The FCC mandates that live captioning be provided in emergencies and disasters, but this requirement is not usually followed.
Such televised news is often converted into digital media circulated on the Internet and 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, and 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 cannot understand English, especially 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. We are monitoring the situation to ensure that this continues and that the interpreters provided are qualified. However, up until May 13, 2020, the ASL interpreter for Governor Cuomo of New York was only visible on the online broadcasts, not on the television broadcast. This rendered the television broadcast inaccessible for those who rely on ASL and do not have Internet access. Such deprivation of access during the ongoing crisis compelled Disability Rights New York to file a federal lawsuit against Governor Cuomo. On May 12, the federal judge granted a preliminary injunction requiring Governor Cuomo to provide an in-frame interpreter on the television broadcasts immediately. Governor Cuomo has done so, but the picture-in-picture size of the ASL interpreter has not been big enough to see clearly.
The whole point is for the interpreter’s signing to be visible enough. The NAD advocates for a larger size for the interpreter’s frame on television, and I 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. We encourage all government agencies to screen all interpreters to ensure they have the appropriate qualifications and strongly promote the hiring of Certified Deaf Interpreters (CDIs) to be used.
We are also disappointed that throughout this entire crisis, the White House has yet to provide an ASL interpreter during their frequent press conferences. The National Association of the Deaf (NAD) filed a lawsuit on August 3, 2020, to compel U.S. President Donald J. Trump and the White House to immediately begin providing American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters during television broadcasts of their coronavirus press conferences and briefings to make them accessible to deaf and hard-of-hearing people (original PR). Indeed, on September 9, 2020, the judge, in that case, ordered the White House to begin providing sign language interpreters for coronavirus press briefings subject to details to be hashed out between the parties and is ongoing.
In addition to advocating to ensure that there are ASL interpreters 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, provides their information with both quality captioning and qualified ASL interpreters.
How do deaf and hard-of-hearing people navigate through discrimination?
Howard A. Rosenblum: Public health communication around the coronavirus has been mostly disseminated in complex written English, not accessible to a large portion of the population, including deaf and hard-of-hearing people. There have been a few videos about coronavirus, and most from the government are captioned, which is good. However, there has been almost no sharing of information about coronavirus in American Sign Language (ASL) from any government agency.
In early March, the NAD contacted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to inquire about any plans to share all of the same information being posted on their website in ASL. It took repeated inquiries over the course of two weeks before we were assured that ASL videos would be produced, but it took another week for five such videos to be posted on YouTube. While we thank the CDC for creating these five ASL videos about coronavirus, they have since then created several more videos but failed to ensure that the signer on those new videos was signing in ASL. We have continued to push the CDC to do better. As far as we know, this is the only government produced videos about coronavirus in ASL. This is inadequate and unacceptable.
Further, some people are DeafBlind, and all communication must be shared with them in a fully accessible manner. This requires expertise and preparedness in anticipation of all emergency communication. This has not happened during this coronavirus disaster.
From a policy and support level, in the future, all government agencies that handle emergency communication should include qualified deaf and hard-of-hearing persons to ensure that their information and materials are always accessible.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Howard A. Rosenblum: The National Association of the Deaf is the oldest national civil rights organization in the United States. It serves at least 48 million deaf and hard-of-hearing people in the country. There are many other nonprofit organizations that also serve this population, but instead of directly competing, all of us have our separate focuses and missions.