Unity or oversight? White House sign language interpreter under fire for “right-wing” ties


White House press secretary Jen Psaki announced last week that the Biden administration will use an interpreter during its daily press briefings because it is an accessible and inclusive administration or something. She even referred to that day’s interpreter by name. What Psaki didn’t say is that the administration is required by law to do so. This isn’t some benevolent decision by Team Biden. Last November a federal judge ruled that the White House had to provide the interpretation after a lawsuit was filed by the National Association of the Deaf, a civil rights group, and five deaf Americans.

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.”

Normally this wouldn’t even be a story. It would just be another instance of Psaki going out of her way to boast about how wonderful the Biden administration is, though the Trump administration first used an interpreter during briefings. In this case, though, the aforementioned Heather has been outed as someone who translates “far-right videos” and, she may even be a Trump supporter. Gasp. Just like that, the White House came under fire for using Heather. The deaf community isn’t happy.

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.

Heather has not worked a press briefing since that day. It’s probably just a coincidence, right? She hasn’t commented on the matter and the White House isn’t making comments on personnel matters, either.

“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.

There have been no complaints about Heather’s performance, mind you, but the critics question if she can be trusted to accurately interpret Psaki during the press briefings. Everything has to contain a partisan twist these days, even the selection of an American Sign Language interpreter. She worked with conservative groups so she cannot be trusted to be a professional and just do her job without inserting her own political leanings, apparently. Does this mean that liberal-leaning interpreters insert their own opinions into their translations? There have not been any complaints lodged against Heather’s professional conduct and she holds several certifications.

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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.

It falls to the White House to vet the qualifications of the interpreters it uses, according to the National Association of the Deaf’s president Howard Rosenblum.

“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.”

I am watching today’s White House press briefing with Psaki as I write this post this morning, as it turns out. Even on C-SPAN, the interpreter isn’t seen in the little box in the corner of the screen. So, I have no way of knowing if one is being used or who the interpreter is. It will be interesting to know if Heather is used again or if her appearance last week was a one-off after the criticism began rolling in.

The fact is that whether Heather’s past work was known to the Biden White House and Psaki’s office and she was hired anyway or if it was an oversight in vetting, this is an opportunity to make a small move towards showing some unity. The Biden White House keeps mouthing the words of unity and civility yet we’ve really not seen any of that so far. On big issues like the coronavirus aid package, for example, GOP senators had to deliver a letter to Joe Biden in order to get him to take a meeting with them. Senator Cassidy appeared on FNC yesterday during its Sunday morning political show and said two times that there had been no outreach from the Biden administration or Democrats to Republican senators before the $1.7 trillion American Rescue Plan was put forth in a my-way-or-the-highway approach from Joe Biden. Perhaps that television appearance pushed Biden to agree to meet with Republicans today.

Psaki can use Heather’s services as an olive branch. It would be a small gesture but no one really expects any grand gestures from the Biden administration. If it was simply a result of a lack of vetting that Heather was used in the first place, well, that would point to incompetence, not a desire to rise above petty politics.

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