Presidential Debates Often Fail Deaf Voters. SignVote Hopes to Change That

How would you vote if you couldn't even understand what the candidates were saying?

A man with a beard and dark hair, wearing a red t-shirt and light jacket, stands on the street speaking ASL. The caption reads: "see? Most content is not accessible in ASL."
SignVote aims to help deaf Americans participate in the election process. SignVote
Headshot of Mary Emily O

Imagine if you tried to watch tonight’s presidential debate but couldn’t understand what was being said. Now imagine if, after several such debates, you went to the polls and found that your questions couldn’t be answered because no one spoke your native language.

For some deaf Americans, this is what elections are like. But SignVote, a new digital campaign from Communication Service for the Deaf, aims to change that and make the voting process genuinely accessible to those for whom American Sign Language, or ASL, is the primary means of communication.

“We have seen improvements with accessibility at live events such as the Democratic debates this year, but there’s still significant work to do,” said Kriston Lee Pumphrey, community engagement manager for Communication Service for the Deaf.

One in four Americans live with a disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control. With numbers like that, disability policy should be a major component of any candidate’s platform—and most of the 2020 Democrats have released theirs already. On Pete Buttigieg’s website, the candidate pledges to “end the shameful subminimum wage” that allows companies to pay disabled workers pennies, and Bernie Sanders has promised to create a National Office of Disability Coordination.

But while many disability platform promises would benefit deaf, hard of hearing, DeafBlind, late-deafened and deaf-mobile citizens, the community has unique needs that can’t wait until after the election to be addressed. That starts with equal access to telecommunications and to information about the political process.

On the SignVote website, deaf voters can access videos in ASL, call the ASL Voter Hotline run by the National Association for the Deaf, read policy recommendations and more.

“For many deaf voters, the majority of the everyday informal political discourse that they have is in ASL,” Pumphrey said. “There is a deep disconnect between the information shared at the dinner table and at the actual polls.”

When debates aren’t translated through onstage ASL interpretation, deaf and hard of hearing people sometimes rely on Communication Access Real-Time Translation, or CART, captioning. But Pumphrey told Adweek that at a recent debate, CART was “useless” because of a weak signal at the venue.

Adweek reached out to NBC News, host of Wednesday’s Nevada debate, to ask whether onstage ASL interpretation will be provided, but they did not respond to a request for comment. 

As Pumphrey points out in a SignVote video, deaf accessibility in voting isn’t just about having ASL interpreters onstage at debates and available to answer questions at the polls. It’s also about missing out on large segments of the overall political conversation due to lack of captioning, poor captioning or a total lack of ASL translation on broadcast and cable news programs.

Outlets for the deaf and hard of hearing community often pick up the slack. In the last week, CNN partner Sign1News has covered caucus results, Bloomberg’s Stop-and-Frisk policy and the resignation of the Iowa Democratic Party chairman—all in ASL.

The disability community overall is increasingly vocal on social media through the 2020 election process. As Democratic candidates take the stage in Nevada tonight, activists will livetweet the debate using the #CripTheVote hashtag to discuss disability issues in a nonpartisan way and increase political engagement throughout the community. 

#CripTheVote has held online town halls with candidates—as it did with Elizabeth Warren in January—and has been pushing for more visibility for disability issues at the debates themselves.

“A lot of these candidates have disability plans on their websites and have spoken in forums, but watching the debates, you wouldn’t know that there is a disability community,” #CripTheVote co-founder Gregg Beratan told ABC News in December.

The Nevada debate takes place tonight at 9 p.m. ET and is hosted by NBC News, MSNBC, Noticias Telemundo and The Nevada Independent.

To view SignVote’s ASL voter information, click here.

@MaryEmilyOHara Mary Emily O'Hara is a diversity and inclusion reporter. They specialize in covering LGBTQ+ issues and other underrepresented communities.