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Cuomo sued over restricted sign language interpreters for Covid briefings

ALBANY – A disability rights group has sued Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo for not providing live sign language interpreters in the television feed the state sends to stations that broadcast his daily coronavirus briefings from the state Capitol.

A federal judge in Southern District Court in Manhattan has scheduled a May 5 hearing on the case.

Unlike other governors, such as California Gov. Gavin Newsom, and many mayors, including New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, and even Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz, the Democratic governor of New York does not feature a sign language interpreter during his live TV feeds; that is jeopardizing the ability of deaf residents to stay informed of the pandemic, a rights group said Wednesday.

Disability Rights New York, along with four deaf New Yorkers from around the state, filed a suit in federal court in Manhattan Wednesday seeking to force Cuomo to expand American Sign Language access of his briefings.

“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,’’ said Timothy Clune, executive director of the advocacy group that brought the lawsuit with the deaf residents.

The lawsuit notes that Cuomo for nearly two months has been holding daily press briefings that are often carried live on various national outlets. None have featured interpreter doing American Sign Language, the main source of communication for most deaf people.

After being contacted by the advocacy group for disabled people, the Cuomo administration at first began offering closed captioning of Cuomo’s press conferences. But live closed captioning often has difficulty keeping up with speakers, or can be filled with typographical errors; as important, especially in a diverse state like New York, the closed captioning is done only in English.

The lawsuit then states that Cuomo began offering on March 27 American Sign Language interpretation of his media briefings. However, they were available only on a special link on Cuomo’s government website and are not archived and – for people who either don’t have access to the internet or have poor streaming services – they were not made available to the TV broadcasters that televise Cuomo’s briefings on state and national stations. Moreover, the administration often gives 30 to 60 minutes’ notice about the timing of his daily briefings, which he has often used to announce major public health and other orders.

The Cuomo administration said it will review the lawsuit.

“We deployed a dedicated ASL stream that’s available on our website and all conferences have been closed captioned,’’ said Richard Azzopardi, a senior adviser to Cuomo. Of the Capitol’s Red Room where the Cuomo briefings are held, he added that the administration has “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.’’

Whether a sign language interpreter would have to be physically present in the actual room with Cuomo is questionable; many elected officials around the world have interpreters appear in a cutout frame that takes up a small portion of a TV screen during events like press conferences or speeches.

The four deaf plaintiffs in the case are from Brooklyn and Albany, Saratoga and Broome counties. One does not own a computer; another does not speak or read English, having learned ASL as a teenager and is the only language he uses.

“As a result of Governor Cuomo’s acts and omissions, deaf New Yorkers are unable to obtain critical health and safety information from his daily briefings,’’ the lawsuit states. The lawsuit, claiming Cuomo is in violation of Americans with Disabilities Act protections, seeks, among other things, a judicial order that Cuomo start offering ASL interpreters on his television broadcast signal.

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