'It's Unfathomable' Trump's COVID-19 Briefings Lack Sign Language Interpreters, Marlee Matlin Says
Since President Donald Trump began holding televised novel coronavirus (COVID-19) briefings in March, the White House has received requests from lawmakers, a federal disability agency and the nation’s oldest civil rights organization asking that sign language interpreters be provided on screen.
But the government has yet to agree and allow the nation’s approximately 11.5 million people with hearing disabilities to receive information about the pandemic via interpreters.
By contrast, many state and local leaders have been giving coronavirus updates with interpreters. The administration has not publicly responded to the requests about the president's briefings.
“It’s appalling,” says Marlee Matlin, an Academy Award-winning actress, who is deaf and has been acquainted with Trump for more than 30 years — including a 2011 appearance as a contestant on The Celebrity Apprentice.
“This is not a trivial request,” Matlin, 54, says in an interview with PEOPLE. “It’s about the [Americans with Disabilities Act]. It’s about the pandemic. They know very well.”
Matlin says she no longer speaks to the 74-year-old Trump, but she's "found it odd" that the president and his staff have declined to act on — or even respond to — requests to provide American Sign Language interpreters at the president's pandemic updates.
The actress says it’s not a political issue but a matter of accessibility and safety. “They’re depriving us of the opportunity to participate,” she says. “It’s unfathomable.”
Frustration from the nation’s top advocates for the deaf recently turned to the courts.
The National Association of the Deaf, along with five people who are deaf, filed a lawsuit on Aug. 3 against the White House.
"The White House’s failure to provide ASL interpreters during COVID-19-related briefings, including press briefings, is against the law," the association argues in its complaint.
The five plaintiffs in the lawsuit, ranging from ages 27 to 92, say they need to see interpreters in order to receive "information on how to stay safe during the coronavirus pandemic, as well as how to take care of family, friends, and loved ones."
In one example laid out in court papers, 27-year-old Graham Forsey, who is also the president of the District of Columbia Association of the Deaf in Washington, D.C., says he "is unable to answer questions from members of the association about the White House briefings because he does not have access to the information himself."
Despite repeated requests from PEOPLE, a White House spokesman did not comment on the record on the interpreter requests, the lawsuit or Marlee Matlin's criticism of the administration.
The White House referred questions on the suit to Department of Justice. A spokesperson there declined to comment.
Court records do not show that the administration has responded to the suit.
“Deaf and hard of hearing Americans deserve the same access to information from the White House and the president that everyone else gets,” says Howard A. Rosenblum, the association’s CEO. “Such information must be provided not only through captioning but also in American Sign Language, especially for government announcements regarding health pandemics.”
Rosenblum, who grew up with Matlin in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, tells PEOPLE that "every governor, mayor and public health official is required to provide ASL access to their coronavirus briefing" and the association's lawsuit is meant to compel the Trump administration "to do the same."
Matlin says it's about getting the president's attention and forcing his aides to act.
“The more noise they make, hopefully they’ll listen, and the way we make noise is we have to sue,” she says. “To me, it’s a no-brainer.”
The National Council on Disability wrote a letter to the White House in mid-March requesting interpreters be shown during the administration’s coronavirus briefings. (The NCD is a federal agency in charge of advising the government on "policies, programs, practices, and procedures that affect people with disabilities.")
“There is no doubt that the Coronavirus brings with it significant added concerns for people with disabilities,” NCD Chairman Neil Romano wrote to the White House then.
But no interpreters have been provided since the agency’s March 18 request.
One day later, Matlin added her voice on Twitter. “PLEASE?” she wrote.
The Children of a Lesser God and Switched at Birth actress says the pandemic has been uniquely challenging for people with hearing impairments.
Health officials say wearing face masks in public is a key preventative measure to slow the virus' spread. But people who are deaf and rely on lip reading often need to ask others to remove their masks in order to communicate — prompting uncomfortable or denied conversations.
Matlin has also relied heavily on video messaging apps like Zoom, although she says neither texting or closed captioning on TV provide full context for a person’s speech, which often needs the context of tone, voice inflection and facial expressions.
ASL interpreters do provide the full context, she says.
The specific interpreters seen on screen during televised press conferences are often translating the speaker’s message through an additional off-screen interpreter. Matlin says this three-way translation — from speaker to off-screen interpreter to on-screen interpreter — is what fully interprets spoken English as American Sign Language.
And it's that full chain that the White House needs to provide, Matlin and the NAD argue.
“We need the ability to understand someone in sign language,” she says. “That’s how we communicate. We don’t all read English. And the [Americans with Disabilities Act] stipulates that.”
Matlin tells PEOPLE that "it appears that the current White House is not paying attention to requests for access" and that she's confused by the administration's response, because neither Trump nor his Celebrity Apprentice staff put up any "barriers to having a sign language interpreter on set" while they filmed the 2011 season.
“During my time on that show, the producers made absolutely clear to put [my interpreter] Jack [Jason] in a position where he should be right next to Trump and I don’t know what happened behind the scenes, but they made it happen and they accommodated me on the show,” Matlin says. “[Trump] didn’t kick Jack off, he didn’t say Jack should be in a corner. He was very — I don’t know — he engaged with Jack.
"Maybe right now the issue of not having an interpreter with the president, maybe he doesn’t know what’s going on,” she says.
Regardless, Matlin says an interpreter needs to be provided to keep people safe: “These people who surround him don’t seem to understand that we need to have interpreters signing when we’re having important information the president of the United States is speaking to us.”
“At the end of the day, we refuse to go backwards. There’s no way,” Matlin says. “This pandemic — we will not let it make us go backwards.”