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In first, White House to provide American Sign Language interpretation for Biden address to Congress


(WASHINGTON) — In a first, the White House plans to provide American Sign Language interpretation for President Joe Biden’s address to Congress next week.

The Biden White House has been providing simultaneous ASL interpretation for its daily news conferences, briefings by its COVID-19 team and remarks by the president and vice president, a practice that began, in part, last year following a lawsuit.

But next week’s address will be the first in which any White House has provided the service for a presidential address to Congress, via a live stream on its website and social media channels.

Biden on Wednesday plans to deliver his first major speech to a joint session of Congress, which in other years — beside a president’s first in office — would be referred to as a State of the Union address.

As has been the practice in recent months, the interpreter will work out of a room separate from where Biden will actually speak. A second video feed will appear in a small box alongside the stream of Biden’s remarks that the White House shares publicly.

“To the best of our knowledge, this is a historical first for the White House to have an American Sign Language interpreter during a Presidential address to Congress,” Howard A. Rosenblum, the chief executive of the National Association of the Deaf, a civil rights group, told ABC News in a statement.

The office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, which organizes the annual presidential addresses, did not respond to questions about whether it would be providing its own ASL interpretation.

It was not clear whether the White House’s interpretation would appear anywhere beyond its own, official live stream.

Television networks broadcast their own version of the address different from the official recording. They do the same for White House press conferences, for which they typically do not show the ASL interpreter.

Rosenblum called on television stations to make the interpretation available.

“We commend the White House for taking steps to ensure accessibility for all who are watching, including deaf and hard of hearing people,” he said. “We urge all TV stations carrying the broadcast to properly display the interpreter in frame or via an appropriately sized picture-in-picture inset without obscuring graphics so that deaf and hard of hearing people can access what is being said.”

The White House’s service will not be the first time a presidential address to Congress has been interpreted into ASL, though, despite it being the first time the White House has done so.

With no official ASL interpretation available, the nonprofit Deaf Professional Arts Network, or D-PAN, has in recent years started providing simultaneous sign-language interpretation for political events.

Based in Detroit, D-PAN provided live streams of ASL interpreters for the last two State of the Union addresses, the 2016 and 2020 presidential debates, and many of last year’s White House coronavirus briefings.

“We realized through this journey that the deaf community just really wasn’t getting information in real time, as it was happening,” Sean Forbes, a deaf hip-hop artist who co-founded D-PAN, told ABC News. “When somebody watches the president, everybody has their own interpretation, their own opinion, their own view. And it’s always been important to us to present information so that people can shape their own opinions.”

Forbes said that the closed captioning available on State of the Union broadcasts in the past has been “awful” and that he welcomed the access the White House planned to provide this year.

“It means the world to us, really, to see sign language on a platform like that,” he said. “Because if the White House is doing it, then everybody else should be doing it.”

But earlier this year, the White House faced questions about its vetting process for the interpreters it has been using, after the first to appear alongside a briefing by Biden’s press secretary, Jen Psaki, was revealed to be a frequent interpreter of far-right videos, including some containing misinformation and conspiracy theories.

The White House only began including ASL interpreters alongside its briefings in the fall, under then-President Donald Trump, following a successful lawsuit filed by the National Association of the Deaf and five deaf Americans.

In November, a federal judge said the White House had to provide the interpretation at coronavirus briefings. ASL interpreters had long appeared with many state and local officials around the country during their briefings over the course of the pandemic, but not at the White House.

Psaki said in January that providing interpretation demonstrated “this administration’s accessibility and inclusion efforts.”

After members of the deaf and hard-of-hearing community identified the first interpreter as Heather Mewshaw and highlighted her previous work interpreting Trump administration events and other right-wing videos, she did not appear for a White House briefing again.

The White House did not respond to questions about how it may have changed its vetting processes since then, how the White House oversees the interpreters and ensures their accuracy, and whether the interpreters are required to have any prior knowledge of the subject matter that comes up at briefings.

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