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The U.S. Presidential Debate Excluded Deaf and Hard of Hearing People

On Tuesday, U.S. President Donald Trump and former U.S. Vice President and current Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden met for the first of three 2020 United States presidential debates. Many people — on the left and the right — are trying to make sense of what happened in the debate.

Throughout the debate, President Trump interrupted and spoke over Biden when it was Biden’s turn to respond. Thanks to its chaotic and argumentative nature, the debate was hard to follow for many viewers. For people who are hard of hearing or deaf, many struggled to understand what was even said – let alone crowning a winner of the debate — because the debate wasn’t accessible.

I am hard of hearing myself, and situations where multiple people talk at once can be overwhelming and exhausting. From elementary school through high school, I felt so tired after I went to the cafeteria because it took a lot of work for me to pay attention to what my friends were saying when there was so much background noise. If two people at my table spoke over each other, I could never understand fully what they said. When I watched clips of the debate on Wednesday, it felt like I had to put in work to get a full grasp of what was happening.

The inaccessibility of the debate did not end with people speaking over each other. TikTok user erin.syd posted a video in which she criticized the debate for not having an American Sign Language interpreter. Due to a delay and subtitle errors during the debate – which are hard to follow regardless when two people speak at the same time – for live television, Deaf and hard of hearing people may not have been able to understand what Trump and Biden said.

@erin.sydif u guys make any of my tiktoks viral, pls make it this one. it’s so important ##deaf ##asl ##signlanguage ##hoh ##accessibility ##trump ##biden♬ THICK – DJ Chose & Beatking

Here is the full text of erin.syd’s message:

OK, so I’m really frustrated right now because I’m trying to watch the presidential debate, but there’s not an ASL interpreter. There’s nothing. And it’s live TV, so closed captions or subtitles don’t work; they’re delayed. It’s not accessible, it’s not equal access and it’s not right. It’s really frustrating because I’m finally old enough to vote, and I can’t even watch the debate. Everyone in the Deaf community can’t watch and can’t understand what’s happening. It’s not fair and we need to push for change, push for interpreters to be at all debates and on screen all the whole time.

Historically, U.S. presidential debates have helped inform people on who they should vote for. The issue with Tuesday’s debate and others that fail to accommodate those with hearing loss and disabilities is that they become exclusionary. According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, 15% of American adults have some trouble hearing. If 15% of U.S. voters had difficulty understanding Tuesday’s debate, that is a significant voting bloc that the Commission on Presidential Debates failed to accommodate.

The absence of an ASL interpreter and accurate, real-time captions follows a long pattern of debates and important briefings on COVID-19 at the state and national level failing to accommodate Deaf and hard of hearing people. If people want the U.S. presidential debates to have an impact on voters, the Commission of Presidential Debates should change the status quo in politics and make them accessible.

Header Images via Wall Street Journal/YouTube