It all started well-intentioned enough when the Biden administration this week announced its press briefings would now include sign language interpretation to expand access to more Americans. The effort, however, quickly ran off the rails on day one when it was discovered the very first sign language interpreter, Heather Mewshaw, has a history of providing sign language interpretation for far-right groups pushing conspiracy theories and misinformation. Mewshaw worked on a volunteer basis for the right-wing interpreters group Hands of Liberty, formerly known as Right Side ASL, which provides the interpretation for videos of far-right figures.
The Hands of Liberty group seems to be a conduit to the dregs of the far-right internet for the deaf and hard of hearing community, relaying spammy anti-vax videos and reports on absurd claims such as Michelle Obama being transgender. Mewshaw herself provided sign language interpretation for videos containing vaccine misinformation posted on far-right social media platforms. She was pictured wearing a MAGA hat and appeared on a video titled “WHAT REALLY HAPPENED On January 6th?” In one video, the Washington Post reports, Mewshaw interprets a commentator from the far-right, pro-Trump OAN Network claiming the presidential election was a “military-grade sting operation.” In another video posted just three days before Mewshaw debuted at the White House, she provided sign language interpretation for pro-Trump comedian Terrence Williams, who said, “Joe Biden, you will never be my president.”
The role of interpreting the president’s words is a serious one, and you don’t have to be deaf to have an understanding of the power a sign language interpreter’s word choices would have. The Washington Post notes that “the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, which certifies interpreters, maintains in its code of professional conduct that interpreters must ‘avoid actual and perceived conflicts of interest that might cause harm or interfere with the effectiveness of interpreting services.’ ” It seems pretty clear that having a MAGA-fied sign language interpreter, much like having Kellyanne Conway speak out loud for the Biden White House, would be hard to take seriously.
The founder of the Hands of Liberty group, Michael Thompson, pushed back against criticism of Mewshaw, saying it is unfairly political. “Now Democrats and Republicans will think they have a right to get rid of interpreters from the other side just because they are from an opposing party,” Thompson signed. This line of thought, unfortunately, is the result of the last four years, where conspiracy theories are misconstrued as legitimate political activity that deserves not just consideration but protection. You want a Republican sign language interpreter? Have at it—go find the Robert Mueller of sign language interpreters and sign all of them up. Until then, bad faith is bad faith, no matter how it’s communicated.