Actress Marlee Matlin, who was among those asking the White House to provide interpreters, told PEOPLE the ruling is a "huge victory"

By Sean Neumann
September 24, 2020 12:45 PM
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President Donald Trump (center) speaks at a Coronavirus Task Force briefing on March 31, 2020
| Credit: MANDEL NGAN/Getty Images

Actress Marlee Matlin is marking a "huge victory" after a federal court order demanded that the White House must now provide on-screen American Sign Language interpreters at its COVID-19 briefings.

U.S. District Judge James E. Boasberg handed down the order after President Donald Trump's administration ignored months of requests from disability groups and then engaged in a court battle over the issue with the National Association of the Deaf.

The NAD sued the Trump administration, arguing that its refusal to provide on-screen interpreters during COVID-19 briefings was illegal and put members of the deaf community at risk as some people struggled to receive pertinent health and safety information about the pandemic.

"Sign language and accurate captioning are both essential and crucial to ensuring all deaf and hard of hearing people are well informed and are able to make better decisions on how to stay safe from the pandemic," Howard A. Rosenblum, the CEO of NAD who grew up with Matlin, said in a statement on Wednesday. "The judge’s order sets a great precedent to achieve this goal of full accessibility."

Starting in October, the White House will be required to show ASL interpreters on-screen at all briefings held by Trump and other top officials—including Vice President Mike Pence and White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany—when COVID-19 is addressed, according to Judge Boasberg's preliminary injunction order.

The interpreters must either be shown next to the speaker or filmed from another location and shown in a picture-in-picture frame on screen, Boasberg ordered.

Donald Trump speaks during a press conference at the White House
| Credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty

The issue was first raised with the Trump administration in March when the National Council on Disability — a federal agency in charge of advising the government on "policies, programs, practices, and procedures that affect people with disabilities"— wrote a letter to the White House requesting interpreters be shown during the briefings.

After the White House did not respond, NAD filed its lawsuit against Trump on Aug. 3.

Rosenblum told PEOPLE in August that "every governor, mayor, and public health official is required to provide ASL access to their coronavirus briefing" and the association's lawsuit was meant to compel the Trump administration "to do the same."

Matlin, who is deaf and appeared on The Celebrity Apprentice with Trump in 2011, told PEOPLE in August his administration's silence on the issue was "appalling."

"This is not a trivial request," Matlin, 54, said at the time. "It's about the [Americans with Disabilities Act]. It's about the pandemic. They know very well."

The White House did not wish to respond to PEOPLE's request for comment on the record.

Donald Trump looks on as CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield speaks at a COVID-19 briefing
| Credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The federal court order comes after disability groups have asked for more than half a year that the White House provide sign language interpreters at its once-daily health briefings.

Matlin, who said she no longer speaks to Trump, had harsh words for the president's administration and their lack of response to the disability groups' requests throughout the pandemic.

"They're depriving us of the opportunity to participate," she said. "It's unfathomable."

Approximately 11.5 million people in the U.S. say they experience hearing loss, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau.

ASL interpreters seen on screen during televised press conferences are often translating the speaker's message through an additional off-screen interpreter, Matlin explained. This three-way translation—from speaker to off-screen interpreter to on-screen interpreter—is what fully interprets spoken English as American Sign Language.