Firefighter Andrea Hall led the Inauguration Pledge of Allegiance before Joe Biden and Kamala Harris took the oath of office.
WASHINGTON — The day President Joe Biden was sworn into office, the nation saw fire captain Andrea Hall, the child of a deaf parent, recite the Pledge of Allegiance — spoken in English and signed.
“Let’s just say that’s the first time I’ve ever cried at the pledge,” said Sara Novic, a deaf writer and college instructor based in Philadelphia. “Beyond access, that was representation, and it meant a lot to see her on the big stage as part of the ceremony.”
The next day, White House press secretary Jen Psaki and Dr. Anthony Fauci gave a press briefing on the COVID-19 pandemic, and on the White House’s livestream, there was a remote American Sign Language interpreter, providing live interpretation for deaf and hard-of-hearing Americans.
The inauguration and first week of Biden’s term in office has shown his administration is committed to accessibility for Americans with disabilities, activists have said. During Biden’s campaign and his transition to office, events were regularly accompanied by interpreters and captioners. Blind and low-vision Americans could also utilize a feed during the inauguration with live audio descriptions.
“I know that there is active conversation between the disability community and the Biden administration … I think this administration presents us with an opportunity with limitless potential. Look at what we’ve dealt with the last four years. From here it’s only up,” said disability rights leader Rebecca Cokley, who directed the National Council on Disability during the Obama administration.
The White House also revamped its website when Biden entered office, prioritizing accessibility features and bringing back a Spanish-language version that was previously absent. Upon visiting WhiteHouse.gov, users with visual, processing and other disabilities will be able to use toggles that are visible on the home page to adjust font size and contrast .
“This commitment to accessibility for all begins with this site and our efforts to ensure all functionality and all content is accessible to all Americans,” the White House’s accessibility statement reads.
Last Monday, Psaki announced there would be an ASL interpreter available at every press briefing going forward, saying that 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.”
It is a marked contrast from the previous occupant of the White House. The administration of former President Donald Trump was sued by deaf Americans and the National Association of the Deaf to provide an ASL interpreter at all briefings related to the coronavirus, arguing that the lack of access to information about the pandemic violated the First Amendment rights of deaf and hard-of-hearing people. About 11.5 million Americans have some degree of hearing loss, according to the Census Bureau.
A judge later ordered that an interpreter be provided beginning in October of last year.
Though the Biden team has been working to make its events and content accessible throughout his campaign and transition to office, there is still work to do to improve, Novic said.
The White House has provided ASL interpretation on its media channels, through the use of a remote interpreter visible on screen, but Novic noted that this is only viewable through White House channels. In the most common places people go to get information from the White House, such as television news, interpretation is not available.
“I am very happy the Biden administration is thinking about accessibility and providing these accessible streams, but I hope other platforms and networks, where people would normally access this content, follow suit so one doesn’t have to be on the computer tracking it down,” Novic said.
Social media users also pointed out a lack of captioning at some briefings on the White House’s channels, an accessibility feature necessary for many who are deaf or hard-of-hearing and do not use ASL, or people with other disabilities that make written captions helpful.
Deaf professor Jon Hemmer also revealed on Twitter that the ASL interpreter used last Monday, the day it was announced from the White House podium that interpretation would be available, has ties to a group that interprets for extreme right-wing videos.
TIME reported the interpreter, Heather Mewshaw, managed a group that interpreted for videos including COVID-19 misinformation and election fraud conspiracy theories. Some deaf people said on social media that it was unsettling to trust information coming from Mewshaw, and she should not have taken the job because of the clear bias.
“Of course someone has a right to work no matter their politics, and technically she is bound by the interpreter code of conduct,” Novic said. “However, as a viewer, the idea of having to rely on that person to be a neutral conduit makes me nervous, in part because language of any kind is never neutral …”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment regarding the use of Mewshaw as an interpreter.
Advocates for disabled people have expressed their optimism about the potential for the Biden administration, both in providing meaningful access to information and also in including the voices of disabled people in decision-making processes.
Cokley said she hopes to see Americans with disabilities as a focus in future legislation intended to provide relief during the pandemic, with funding specifically going toward home- and community-based services.
“We anticipate to see an unprecedented number of appointees with disabilities appointed to this administration because it’s also acknowledged the fact that we have a disabled president, that’s also very exciting to us,” Cokley said, referring to Biden’s lifelong stutter.
Cokley said she expects to see not just improved accessibility from the current administration, but also the inclusion of disabled voices at all levels, involved in all conversations, events and policy decisions.
“There isn’t any event, or policy initiative, or personnel issue that isn’t going to have a disproportionate impact on disabled people,” Cokley said.
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