The Presidential Debate Was Inaccessible For the Deaf and Hard of Hearing—And People Are Calling It Out

Accessibility shouldn't be an afterthought, it's a right.

Watching the 2020 Presidential Debate on Tuesday was hard enough on those without hearing difficulties, but for those who rely on closed captions and American Sign Language Interpretation (ASL), it was fairly inaccessible. TikTok user Erin Rosenfeld expressed her discontent (in a closed-captioned and ASL-interpreted video) with the lack of options for the Deaf and hard of hearing.

"It's not accessible, it's not equal access, and it's not right," Rosenfeld laments in the video. "It's really frustrating because I'm finally old enough to vote, and I can't even watch the debate." In accordance with the American Disabilities Act of 1990, "auxiliary aids and services" like ASL interpreters are required for any place of public accommodation (such as Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland where the debate took place). With approximately 48 million Americans are living with significant hearing loss, it is crucial that this community is is considered during these televised events as well as access to hearing devices such as affordable top rated hearing aids.

Taking advantage of the of the 77,500+ views the video gained in little over a day, Rosenfeld created a petition advocating for the Democratic National Committee, CNN, and other major television networks to provide ASL interpreters in the corner of the screen during the debates to keep up with the conversation. "Do not shut out this key demographic—our voices deserve to be heard, too," Rosenfeld writes on the petition page, reaching over 9,000 of its 10,000-signature goal.

Rosenfeld definitely wasn't alone in her request. A multitude of Twitter users also expressed upset at the lack of accessibility for deaf and hard of hearing individuals.

According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), approximately 37.5 million American adults over the age of 18 report some trouble hearing, and nearly 1 million Americans are functionally deaf, according to the US Census Bureau. The Commission on Presidential Debates released a statement in response to viewer backlash, promising a format change for upcoming debates, but no official word yet on improved real-time accessibility options. In the meantime, the Deaf Professional Arts Network, also known as DPAN, took it upon themselves to create an ASL-interpreted version of the Presidential Debate, complete with closed captioning to aid those who couldn't access the debate this week. A completely non-partisan organization, DPAN was originally created to extend music and music culture to those who are Deaf and hard of hearing, and are now dipping into interpreting the debates to ensure the same community has equal access to voting information.

The next presidential debate will take place on Oct. 15 in Miami with the final debate on Oct. 22 in Nashville, Tenn. The vice-presidential debate between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris is set for Oct. 7 in Salt Lake City, Utah. Each debate begins at 9pm EST.

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