Yes, It’s Right to Ask For Our Communication Rights

Gael Hannan
September 14, 2020

I’m scratching my head. Also, a little miffed.

Why has it been so hard to get our leaders to include sign language interpretation in daily updates on the pandemic that has upended our world?!

I’m Canadian and back in March, I was shocked to see that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s daily updates did not, at first, include sign language interpretation. It took a few complaints and a few days to correct that glaring mistake.

I was even more shocked to discover, this week, that the White House coronavirus briefings do not currently provide ASL interpretation. In response to lawsuits brought against the White House by the National Association of the Deaf and five individual Deaf people, a federal court has ruled that it may have to do so. A hearing is being held this week.

Wait, stop! MAY have to? Seriously?

Arguing that closed captioning should be sufficient communication access for all people who are deaf or have hearing loss, displays a profound lack of knowledge of how we communicate. For many Deaf people, sign language is their first language, and the spoken/written language may be their second. Deaf people forced to depend on reading the closed captioning – which is delivered live, in real time, and therefore subject to human error – may not fully comprehend what’s being said. And that’s dangerous.

Governors in all 50 states seem to have got it right, providing in-frame sign language interpreting for their briefings, so it is stunning to learn that, at the highest level, people’s communication needs are being dismissed. 

We are in a time of crisis. To ensure our safety in the pandemic, we need the information to be accessible so that we can be on the same page as everyone else. For people with hearing loss who use spoken and written language, closed captioning is crucial. For people who use a signed language such as American Sign Language (ASL)  or langue des signes québécoise (LSQ) in Canada and the US, sign language interpreting delivered by qualified interpreters is just as crucial.

This is not the only situation causing communication barriers. Mask-wearing has delivered an unprecedented challenge to people with hearing loss. Innovators have risen to the occasion by designing clear face shields and partially clear masks. They haven’t yet become standard, so our challenge is still very huge and raw.

We have the right to ask for accessible communication. Communication rights mean more than freedom of speech; it also refers to the right to participate and to accessible communication. If we have done all that we can to facilitate a conversation in a store or in a doctor’s office or anywhere – we’ve explained our hearing loss and perhaps tried a speech-to-text app – and we still have difficulty, it’s time for the next step. And that doesn’t mean turning around and walking away. It means, in my opinion, that we have the right to ask the speaker, IF we are sufficiently distanced and IF no one else is negatively impacted, to lower their mask – just briefly – so that we can lipread and understand them. 

Whether it’s our federal governments updating us on the pandemic, or store clerks asking if we need any more help, we have the right to understand.

It’s right to ask for our communication rights. It’s also a win-win. We understand each other and we are staying safe. How perfect is that?


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  1. So, if I am reading this correctly, that our own federal government violated a law that was put into place 30 years ago?
    No wonder in our government that right hand doesn’t know the left hand is doing!(NOT SPEAKING POLITICS HERE!)
    The White House should have been the FIRST to have ASL inclusion in ALL of the press briefings!

    I have been really disillusioned and very disappointed in how our government has been run in the last 10-15 years. I feel that the current idea of term limits for all elected government officials should take place.
    In the case of August of this year, the Congress, Senate and House left for a vacation and left work to be done still on the table! Imagine if we as a common working people did that where we worked? The vacation would be permanent!

  2. Accessibility is law in Canada. Wheelchair access is pretty much understood as is braille for blind people. Closed captioning (unless the script is provided before the programme) is often poorly spelled, running behind the speaker or missed, The understanding from the media is that closed captioning is all that is necessary for people with hearing loss.
    As profoundly deaf people you have the RIGHT to have sign language interpretation as Canadians and tax payers. You have the right to know about staying safe during CoVid 19 … but you also have the right to know about attending school during CoVid. You have the right to ask for ACCESSIBILITY under the new Accessibility laws in Canada.
    Google for how to contact CBC (CBC + contact) … CHEK (Contact CHEK News) … CTV (Contact CTV News Vancouver Island)

  3. Of the 50 million with hearing loss, two million people in the US sign and 48 million don’t. During our recent wildfires all the updates were videos on Twitter which doesn’t have AI captioning capabilities, they finally added an ASL interpreter but NEVER any captions or written summary. I wanted to give feedback to the city so when I checked for emergency services it was through the city police, NO EMAILS were allowed, only a phone number. The fires were getting closer and I had no way to access the information. The institutional framework is seriously unprepared to deal with hearing loss and emergencies. The police aren’t, the fire dept isn’t, the ER’s and doctors are not. A police car driving through a neighborhood telling people to evaucate by loudspeaker isn’t adequate. BTW the city council never responded to my email.

    1. Gael Hannan Author

      Alice, thank you for writing. It was my understanding that Hurricane Katrina was such a communications and preparedness disaster, FEMA had to change how they did things. Clearly it’s not there yet.

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