4 reasons Cuomo could have used an ASL interpreter sooner

Governor Cuomo on May 12, 2020.
Governor Cuomo on May 12, 2020.
Darren McGee/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Cuomo on May 12, 2020.

4 reasons Cuomo could have used an ASL interpreter sooner

The governor’s excuses for leaving sign language interpretation out of his pandemic don’t make much sense.
May 12, 2020

On Monday, a federal judge ordered Gov. Andrew Cuomo to add simultaneous sign-language interpretation to his daily coronavirus press briefings, to communicate with hearing impared viewers. The ruling came after a group of deaf New Yorkers sued the governor for not having an interpreter present at his briefings, which have been viewed nationwide over the past two months, on April 29. The state has made American Sign Language interpretation available online since March, after a USA Today report drew attention to the requests for interpretation from the state’s deaf community, but the lawsuit requested that the interpretation be viewable on television. The state has also provided closed-captioning of its press conferences, but disability advocates have said they are error-prone and an inadequate replacement for sign-language interpretation.

The state said it resisted the call to add an interpretar due to a desire to avoid bringing unnecessary personnel to press conferences and argued that its online feed was sufficient. "Responding to the community's concerns and balancing the need to reduce density during this pandemic, we set up a dedicated ASL livestream channel that is being viewed by thousands of New Yorkers," Top Cuomo advisor Rich Azzopardi told USA Today, on Monday evening.

The state’s position seems odd, considering all 49 other states have provided sign language interpreters during the pandemic. So what took Cuomo so long? Is he trying to avoid sharing the spotlight on national television, afraid he might be upstaged by an expressive interpreter? Or, is he just unconcerned with the needs of deaf viewers?

Cuomo’s office did not respond to a request for comment. But the Cuomo administration’s public explanations don’t withstand scrutiny. Here are four reasons he could have provided a sign-language interpreter all along:

  1. Every other governor managed to hire an interpreter

Forty-nine governors across the country had already added sign-language interpreters to their televised briefings by the end of March, and up until Monday night only New York and the White House remained without them. If South Dakota managed to include an interpreter on their roster, it’s hard to see why it wasn’t possible for Cuomo’s team to figure it out.

  1. The state only asked for a day to add ASL interpretation to their televised briefing

Upon the judge’s ruling, the state asked that they be given until Wednesday to work out any possible technical kinks that may arise. This suggests that the mechanics involved in moving their interpreter from their online feed to their televised broadcast wasn’t such a heavy lift, after all.

  1. He made room for his daughters at press briefings

If one of the state’s major explanations for why they did not want to bring an interpreter to their press conferences was to avoid violating social distancing measures, then why did he continually make room for his daughters at them? 

The governor’s daughters, who hold no position in state government, haveappearedat several of Cuomo’s briefings in person. While their presence may have warmed viewers’ hearts, it wasn’t necessary to comply with any law – whereas providing ASL interpretation is mandatory under the Americans with Disabilities Act, according to the federal court.

  1. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has had an interpreter for years

Not only has Cuomo’s best frenemy, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, had a sign-language interpreter since he also began holding daily COVID-19 briefings, but he’s had one for years

Jonathan Lamberton, the sign-language interpreter who has been with the mayor’s administration since 2015, is a celebrity in his own right, known for his dramatic and expressive signing. In late March, Lamberton told the New York Post that he felt Cuomo’s administration needed their own interpreter. “City Hall has been good about keeping the conferences safe,” he said. “I’ve seen ones from other states have overly crowded stages and rooms. There’s nobody that close to me. Also: Gov. Cuomo’s doing a great job overall, but Albany needs an interpreter.”

You would think that with Cuomo’s penchant for undermining de Blasio and co-opting his ideas throughout this crisis, he’d also want an interpreter – and one with even more pizzazz than Hizzoner’s.

Amanda Luz Henning Santiago
Amanda Luz Henning Santiago
is City & State's web reporter and social media editor.
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