Gov Cuomo sued for not providing an interpreter for deaf people during Covid briefings

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A non-profit advocacy group for disabled New Yorkers filed a federal lawsuit against New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Wednesday demanding he hires a sign language interpreter to take part in all his future coronavirus briefings.

“Plaintiffs challenge Governor Andrew Cuomo’s practice of holding daily press briefings regarding the COVID-19 pandemic without providing simultaneous American Sign Language (‘ASL’) interpretation for television broadcast for deaf audience members,” the suit reads.

It was filed by Disability Rights New York on behalf of four deaf New Yorkers: Dennis Martinez, Douglas Nguyen, James Hallenbeck and Jill Wildberger.

View the suit below:

The suit continues by noting that though the governor’s briefings “provide critical information about steps taken by the state and federal government to address the health crisis and recommendations on how New Yorkers can stay safe and help limit the spread of the virus,” this information is inaccessible to the state’s large deaf community.

“According to the 2014 census, there are approximately 208,000 people in New York City who are deaf or hard of hearing,” the suit notes. “Rochester, New York, is home to the United States’ largest deaf population per capita, with about 90,000 people who are deaf or hard of hearing living in the metropolitan area.”

And while it’s true Cuomo does offer closed captioning, which is typically an automated process, members of the deaf community “are often unable” to follow along because of the gross imperfections in automatic transcripts.

“Machine translation is responsible for much of today’s closed-captioning and subtitling of broadcast and online streaming video,” The Atlantic reported back in 2014. “It can’t register sarcasm, context, or word emphasis. It can’t capture the cacophonous sounds of multiple voices speaking at once, essential for understanding the voice of an angry crowd of protestors or a cheering crowd.”

“It just types what it registers. Imagine watching classic baseball comedy Major League and only hearing the sound of one fan shouting from the stands. Or only hearing every other line of lightning-fast dialogue when watching reruns of the now-classic sitcom 30 Rock.”

YouTube is a perfect example of this:

This is why the deaf community relies on sign language (ASL) for their information. It’s also why “every other state in the nation has provided some form of live televised ASL interpretation in frame during its briefings,” according to the suit.

Even New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has provided ASL services — and via a very entertaining interpreter, to boot.

Look:

According to DRNY, Cuomo’s decision to eschew an interpreter violates Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act and and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

“It is inexplicable that during this pandemic, the Governor would choose not to have ASL interpreters at his daily live televised briefings. As a result, deaf New Yorkers are unable to obtain vital life and death information at the time they need it most,” DRNY executive director Timothy A. Clune said in a statement.

Yet in a statement to CNN, the governor’s team dismissed the group’s concerns.

“All conferences have been close captioned,” senior adviser Rich Azzopardi said. “We’ll review the suit, but we’ve been moving heaven and earth and working with the Albany press corps to reduce density in the room and respect social distancing standards as we fight this pandemic.”

It’s not clear what reducing density and respecting social distancing has to do with providing sign language interpreters.

CNN confirmed Thursday that a judge has rejected the group’s request for a preliminary injunction that would have forced Cuomo to immediately begin providing ASL interpretation.

However, the judge has reportedly ordered the governor’s team to draft a memo explaining why they’re abstaining from hiring an interpreter.

The governor’s refusal to take the group’s suit seriously, as demonstrated by the tweet below, isn’t earning him any fanfare.

Case in point:

As of Friday, it didn’t appear Cuomo was listening, no pun intended.

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Vivek Saxena

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