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An accessible inauguration for the deaf community

accessible inauguration

If you watched the inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, you may have noticed some changes in the communication from previous events. With American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters, live closed captioning and audio-descriptions, it was likely the most diverse, inclusive, and accessible inauguration the United States has had.

An Accessible Inauguration

The Biden-Harris inauguration was a positive step for inclusivity in the country. It was an accessible inauguration in a multitude of ways, particularly for the deaf community.

According to the Presidential Inaugural Committee, efforts were made to prioritize accessibility in all aspects of the ceremonies and events.

“We are committed to providing opportunities for equitable participation, allowing everyone to engage with our programs. American Sign Language (ASL), live closed captioning, and streamtext captions are available during all Presidential Inaugural Committee events. We are also using Certified Deaf Interpreters for our national broadcast events,” the website states.

The Pledge of Allegiance

Andrea Hall, the first Black female Fire Captain in the history of the City of South Fulton Fire Rescue Department in Georgia, recited the Pledge of Allegiance. But she went a step further and signed it as she spoke. Turns out she’s a CODA (Child of a Deaf Adult). Her father is deaf and attended the Georgia School for the Deaf.

Poet Laureate

Amanda Gorman, the youngest ever Poet Laureate at an inauguration at age 22, wrote and performed “The Hill We Climb.” The nation’s first Youth Poet Laureate has an auditory processing disorder and speech articulation issues. She told CNN that until two or three years ago, she couldn’t even say the letter R. She still struggles with it today, “which is difficult when you have a poem in which you say ‘rise’ like five times,” she said.

While Gorman doesn’t have a hearing loss, many can relate to her struggles and preparation. To get ready for the event on Wednesday, the New York Times reported that “she practiced reading the poem over and over, to the point where she felt confident that she would not stumble over the words. ‘For me, that takes a lot of energy and work,’ she said. ‘The writing process is its own excruciating form, but as someone with a speech impediment, speaking in front of millions of people presents its own type of terror.’”

Read more: What is Joe Biden’s name sign?

Accessible and Inclusive Celebrations

Having to adapt inaugural celebrations to the virtual space was a boon for people with disabilities, because they were accessible to all. After the inaugural ceremonies on January 20, there was also a Parade Across America. This featured performances across the country. A wheelchair basketball league was included.

That evening, there was a virtual Signs of Change Inaugural Ball for the deaf community. It was hosted by Deaf in Government, DPAN.tv, Communication Service for the Deaf, and SignVote. The event billed itself as “a celebration event welcoming the new administration, reflecting positive successes over the past year for the deaf community, with a central theme focusing on civic engagement and education featuring Nyle DiMarco.”

Following that was the Celebrating America Primetime Special, hosted by Tom Hanks. President Biden and Vice President Harris spoke. Musicians like John Legend and Demi Lovato performed. For once, people with hearing loss could see the lyrics being sung.

An Accessible White House

As the first female Vice President in U.S. History, Kamala Harris is also the first Black and South Asian person in the position.

Eileen Lograno, a teacher with hearing loss, had the perfect response to this momentous occasion on Facebook: “It was a day when even a profoundly deaf woman could hear the shattering of that glass ceiling…”

“It was a day when even a profoundly deaf woman could hear the shattering of that glass ceiling…”

With a new administration dedicated to diversity, inclusion, and accessibility, people with disabilities everywhere are breathing sighs of relief – and many seem optimistic the changes will stick.

According to White House communications, “This commitment to accessibility for all begins with this site and our efforts to ensure all functionality and all content is accessible to all Americans.”

A TTY/TDD number “for the hearing impaired” is also available. However, while this is indeed a step forward, clearly there’s a little more education needed. Not only is the term “hearing impaired” in disfavor, but a dedicated TTY line is archaic. What is preferable is a live chat or an email option.

On January 25, the White House press secretary announced that the daily press briefings will have an ASL interpreter.

“The president is committed to building an America that is more inclusive, more just and more accessible for every American,” Press Secretary Jen Psaki said.

Unfortunately, the press briefings on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are not captioned. Hopefully that will soon change.


Author Details
Lisa A. Goldstein has a Masters in Journalism from UC Berkeley, a digital hearing aid, a cochlear implant, and plenty of deaf-friendly communication equipment. She spends her days juggling life as a freelance journalist, wife, and mother of two in Pittsburgh, PA.