Gov. Gavin Newsom with a sign language interpreter at a press conference in July. Courtesy of the governor’s office

Although the Americans with Disabilities Act recently celebrated its 30th year, the act’s promise to provide equal access to people with disabilities remains a work in progress. For the deaf and hard-of-hearing communities, the fight for communication access is still a daily struggle in America’s verbose 24/7 culture.

Now, due to a new law, Assembly Bill 5, this struggle for the right to communication access has become even more profound. Sign language interpreters and realtime captioners working as independent contractors are under fire to become employees.

On Jan. 1, AB 5 set new criteria for independent contractors. These new criteria disrupted the decades-old model for interpreters and captioners working as independent contractors and presumes it is superior to be an employee.

While many interpreters and captioners do work as employees in various environments such as the courts, schools, and state agencies, there are even more who choose to work as independent contractors.

Not having a shared language disadvantages people. The independent contracting model is long-held and benefits the deaf and hard-of-hearing communities who rely on the services of interpreters and captioners at all times day or night in a wide variety of settings. As the stakes for clear understanding become higher in medical, safety, and legal situations, the more critical it becomes for the deaf and hard-of-hearing to have communication access in an efficient and timely manner — and in a manner that is not tied to the confines of employee restrictions.

Equal access to communication and the jobs provided by sign language interpreters and realtime captioners are at risk if these two professions are not granted exemption under Assembly Bill 2257. This bill is designed by Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez, author of AB 5, to “clean up” what has turned out to be a very controversial law.

Who could have predicted a global pandemic? However, COVID-19 is here and creating havoc to the state of California’s economy. Now more than ever, flexible working conditions are preserving people’s ability to continue earning a living.

The restrictions on independent contractors created by AB 5 not only further disadvantage deaf and hard-of-hearing people, but add momentum to the exodus of work from the state of California.

Business entities that do provide communication access through local interpreters and captioners for brief interactions with deaf or hard-of-hearing consumers are not going to hire an employee. This is especially true when it is possible to reach out across state lines and use a remote interpreter or captioner without the longer-term implications of employment.

Yet, accurate communication relies on human interaction. Remote interpreting and captioning cannot reliably replace the linguistic and cultural sensitivities provided by in-person communication. This AB 5 induced loss of service quality exacerbates the situation.

Deaf and hard-of-hearing people want access to, well…everything. From art, academia and business to tours of national monuments, political rallies, and excursions, they use the services of interpreters and captioners to fully enjoy all facets of life. An exemption within AB 2257 will allow the independent contractors serving these communities to continue working in a way that allows access even in random and acute situations.

“Blindness separates us from things.  But deafness separates us from people” — Helen Keller

We need your help. Gonzalez has much to consider with AB 2257. And, as usual, the squeaky wheel will get the grease. Please contact Gonzalez in support of sign language interpreters and realtime captioners remaining independent contractors.

Teresa Sedano and Catherine Kellers are both sign language interpreters in California.

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