White House ASL interpreter under scrutiny for right-wing ties
By SARAH KOLINOVSKY and BEN GITTLESON, ABC News
(WASHINGTON) — The background of the first American Sign Language interpreter to appear as part of a White House press briefing during the Biden administration is raising questions about the administration’s vetting process, after she was revealed to be a frequent interpreter of far-right videos, including some containing misinformation and conspiracy theories.
Members of the deaf community identified Heather Mewshaw on social media posts Monday, highlighting her previous work interpreting Trump administration events and other right-wing videos. Mewshaw appears as an ASL interpreter in videos on the official Trump White House archive on YouTube.
She is also an organizer of Hands of Liberty, a group that provides ASL interpretation for right-wing videos. Hands of Liberty, previously called Right Side ASL, has been removed from Facebook for “violating community standards,” according to a post by the group on the social platform MeWe. Mewshaw appears in a Nov. 17 post titled “Admin Update” explaining the move from Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to platforms MeWe and Gab, which are popular with conservatives for their light approaches to moderation.
Mewshaw appears in dozens of videos on Hands of Liberty’s MeWe page, many of which contain misinformation. Mewshaw’s participation in such videos was first reported by TIME.
At her briefing Monday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki highlighted the virtual presence of “Heather” — who appeared in a picture-in-picture box on the online streams of the briefing.
“As a part of this administration’s accessibility and inclusion efforts, starting today, we will have an ASL — an American Sign Language — interpreter for our daily press briefings,” Psaki said. “Today’s interpreter, Heather, is joining us virtually.”
Mewshaw did not respond to requests for comment from ABC News on Friday and she has not interpreted for a White House briefing since Monday.
“The President and this administration have made a commitment to having an ASL interpreter at every press briefing and are working to follow through on that commitment every single day. We are not commenting on specific people or personnel matters at this time,” a White House official said in a statement provided Friday evening.
While no public complaints have been made about Mewshaw’s interpretation of Psaki’s briefing, questions arose among the deaf community about whether Mewshaw could be trusted to accurately convey the Biden administration’s message, given her apparent political bias.
“Imagine what harm she could cause… literally holding the message in her hands,” tweeted deaf actor and model, Nyle DiMarco.
The Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, a national organization that certifies ASL interpreters, confirmed that Mewshaw held several certifications.
The group said it requires certified interpreters to follow a code of professional conduct – which includes the requirement that they disclose “any actual or perceived conflicts of interest” – and it adjudicates complaints against interpreters. A spokesperson for the registry declined to comment to ABC News about whether it had received any complaints about Mewshaw, citing confidentiality rules.
The White House only began including ASL interpreters in its briefings in the fall, following a successful lawsuit filed by the National Association of the Deaf, a civil rights group, and five deaf Americans.
In November, a federal judge said the White House had to provide the interpretation at coronavirus briefings. ASL interpreters had long appeared with many state and local officials around the country during their briefings over the course of the pandemic, but not at the White House.
Asked about Mewshaw’s participation in Monday’s briefing, the National Association of the Deaf’s president, Howard Rosenblum, told ABC News it was the White House’s job to make sure its interpreters were qualified.
“Under federal laws, any entity that is required to provide ASL interpreters must ensure that they meet the federal definition of a ‘qualified interpreter’ which means that they are effective, accurate, and impartial in their interpretations,” Rosenblum said. “It is up to the entity, such as the White House, to properly vet all ASL interpreters to assess that they are qualified for the job.”
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