As chatter around the Democratic primaries continues to rise in volume, SignVote attempts to improve the voting experience for those who cannot hear. ByAusta Somvichian-Clausen

Story at a glance

  • Watching the election debates as a deaf person without an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter present can make them to feel excluded and ultimately uninformed.
  • Many deaf people in the United States are eligible to vote but do not have access to important voting registration materials in ASL.
  • On Wednesday, Communication Service for the Deaf (CSD) announced the launch of its SignVote campaign designed to help inform and increase voter engagement among the deaf community throughout the 2020 elections.

“Back in 2016 I remember watching the election debates and the captioning was so badly delayed that it wasn’t even matching up with the topics that were shown on-screen,” says Kriston Lee Pumphrey, Community Engagement Manager for Communication Service for the Deaf (CSD). “The myriad of controversial topics just made it a roller coaster ride of frustration. I remember thinking, ‘If only we could have live interpreters on-screen.’”

Pumphrey isn’t alone in his frustrations. Although many laws have been passed guaranteeing the right to vote for the hard of hearing, there remain significant barriers to full participation in the electoral process for the more than 30 million deaf American citizens. These hurdles include their ability to access information they need to make informed choices and exercise their full civic rights, which right now is relatively inaccessible.

“At the time I was working for the Deaf Professional Arts Network (DPAN) as their DTV News anchor providing coverage in AS,” says Pumphrey. “Some of us took matters in our own hands and made the first-ever live-interpreted presidential debates on DPAN.TV. The response from the deaf communities was astoundingly positive, and we knew this was what people wanted to see.”

Making the voting process accessible 

On Wednesday, the Communication Service for the Deaf announced the expansion of its SignVote campaign — designed to help inform and increase voter engagement among the deaf community throughout the 2020 elections. A nonpartisan platform, SignVote spotlights accessible voter content and resources for those who communicate using American Sign Language (ASL). It’s the world’s largest deaf-led social impact organization. 

“The goal of SignVote is to promote greater participation and engagement from our community in the political process and to elevate awareness of key issues that impact a deaf person’s quality of life,” said Chris Soukup, the CEO of CSD. “We believe that continued organizing and advocacy will expand visibility of topics that are important to our community, which makes their inclusion in candidates’ disability plans more likely.”

“Every deaf person deserves the right to make fully-informed decisions as voters,” adds Pumphrey. “SignVote provides an extensive ASL-based digital archive that will help eliminate some of the most fundamental barriers that deaf people still face today to full participation in the electoral process.”

According to CSD, many deaf people in the United States are eligible to vote but do not have access to important voting registration materials and elections information in ASL, their primary language, and many polling stations lack staff who are fluent in ASL. This creates, says CSD, a significant barrier to overall engagement and making informed choices throughout the election process.

Pumphrey says that his experience as a deaf voter has been unfulfilling and that he doesn’t feel as if he’s able to fully contribute to the greater mainstream discourse on politics. When asked if he thinks certain barriers to entry discourage deaf people from voting, he said “absolutely.” 

“For many of us who are deaf, American Sign Language is our natural language, so when conversations on politics happen — whether in the media or during live events — it can be mentally and morally draining to simply be given bread crumbs in the form of delayed or inaccurate captioning, if we even get that at all. We want to go to the polls as truly informed voters,” he says.

Speaking for himself and the deaf community, he says that the consideration of deaf people in the voting process, “would mean that we are being recognized as fully capable and valued members of society — that we aren’t broken. Just different. The unique point of views brought to the ballot will more about ownership: our decision-making related to accessibility, education, and jobs that affect us as deaf citizens.”