Biden White House Briefings Will Have a Sign Language Interpreter After Trump Refused

"There is more work to be done, but this is a great day for inclusion and access for the deaf and hard of hearing community," the National Association for the Deaf said

01/25/21: Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jen Psaki with ASL Interpreter
Photo: The White House/YouTube

For the first time in history, the White House will include an American Sign Language interpreter at all of its briefings, Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Monday.

"As a part of this administration's accessibility and inclusion efforts, starting today we will have an ASL, an American Sign Language interpreter, for our daily press briefings," Psaki said.

She continued: "The president 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."

An ASL interpreter named Heather featured in Monday's briefing, joining virtually.

(TIME later reported that Heather, identified by the magazine as Heather Mewshaw, had "ties to the far right." She did not respond to PEOPLE's request for comment.)

The interpreters will be seen in-frame, as the briefings air on television and online, including the official White House website and social media accounts.

In a statement, the National Association for the Deaf said that a September 2020 court order had "set the stage" for the decision.

While the Trump administration began holding televised novel coronavirus briefings in March 2020, the White House did not comply with requests from lawmakers, a federal disability agency and the nation's oldest civil rights organization asking that sign language interpreters be provided on screen.

The NAD sued the Trump administration over its refusal to provide ASL interpreters for any COVID-19-related press briefings, which would have allowed the nation's approximately 11.5 million people with hearing disabilities to receive information about the pandemic via interpreters.

"The White House's failure to provide ASL interpreters during Covid-19 related briefings, including press briefings, is against the law," the lawsuit argued, according to CNN.

Marlee Matlin, an Academy Award-winning actress who is deaf and who appeared as a contestant on Trump's The Celebrity Apprentice in 2011, called his administration's failure to include ASL interpreters "appalling."

"This is not a trivial request," Matlin, 54, said in a previous interview with PEOPLE. "It's about the [Americans with Disabilities Act]. It's about the pandemic. They know very well ... They're depriving us of the opportunity to participate. It's unfathomable."

A court eventually ordered the White House to provide ASL interpreters at all COVID-19 briefings.

Following the court order, the first interpreters began appearing White House briefings in November, according to NAD.

NAD issued a statement this week lauding the decision by Joe Biden's administration to include ASL interpreters in all White House briefings.

"There is more work to be done, but this is a great day for inclusion and access for the deaf and hard of hearing community," the group said.

Some portions of Biden's inaugural ceremonies also featured ASL interpreters. The Pledge of Allegiance, for instance, was recited by a Georgia fire captain who also interpreted the words in sign language.

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