Melvin Walker, President
Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf
333 Commerce Street
Alexandria, VA 22314
Dear President Melvin Walker:
The National Association of the Deaf (NAD), as the nation’s premier civil rights organization of, by and for deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals issues this letter to the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) to demand that the RID act in furtherance of the right of people who are deaf and hard-of-hearing to equally effective communication. Specifically, the NAD requests that RID immediately issue a public apology and statement with respect to positions taken by its previous executive director, Anna Witter-Merithew, during her tenure with RID.
We understand that Ms. Witter-Merithew provided expert witness testimony in opposition to deaf people asserting civil rights in at least three cases known to us while she served as the Executive Director of RID: as the rebuttal expert for the hospital in the case of Priscilla Saunders v. Mayo Clinic, No. 13-cv-1972 (U.S. District Court of Minnesota, 2013); as the rebuttal expert for the hospital in the case of Durand et al. v. Fairview Health Services, No. 2015-cv-2012 (U.S. District Court of Minnesota, 2015); and as an expert witness for the prosecution in the criminal case of State of Tennessee v. Andrew Clayton Parker, No. CR6081 (White County Criminal Court, 2014). While her report in the criminal case of Parker is not available to us at the moment, we have her reports and testimony in the Saundersand Durandcases – and they are attached for your convenience.
A reading of these reports and testimony makes it clear that Ms. Witter-Merithew served as an expert on behalf of defendants alleged to have violated the civil rights of deaf people who require communication access through qualified sign language interpreters.
Priscilla Saunders is a deaf woman who was pregnant and sought qualified interpreters for when she would deliver the baby at the Mayo Clinic. She asserted in her complaint that she could not effectively communicate with the hospital’s staff interpreter and asked for other interpreters. The hospital allegedly kept using the staff interpreter anyway to communicate with her. Ms. Witter-Merithew provided an expert report on October 22, 2014 saying, “It would not be possible for the Mayo Clinic to satisfy the specific expectations and preferences of the plaintiffs in this matter for consistent provision of services by highly qualified interpreters with native ASL competence.”
Roger and Linda Durand are deaf parents who sued a hospital that was treating their adult hearing son and allegedly did not provide them with qualified interpreters except two times, both brief. The Durands asserted that, as a result of the lack of qualified interpreters, they did not understand that their son was dying. Ms. Witter-Merithew provided a June 29, 2016 expert report in which she opined, “It would likely not be possible to satisfy the specific expectations and preferences of the plaintiffs in this matter for consistent provision of services by highly qualified interpreters throughout the days leading up to Shaun Durand’s death.” Even more upsetting to the NAD is her statement in the report that “There is no evidence supporting the notion…that the inclusion of interpreters would have in anyway [sic] improved the level of understanding that apparently continues to elude Linda and Roger Durand.” She further stated that the deaf parents were at fault for not properly requesting interpreters: “They [sic] family is emphatic that requests were made, but often vague as to with who, when, how” and “The hands off approach of Linda and Roger Durand, which included a failure to self-advocate and ask for clarification when needed and when the opportunity existed contradicts the impact they now claim the lack of interpreters created.”
The NAD believes these comments to be harmful to the civil and linguistic rights of deaf and hard of hearing people. Moreover, what the NAD considers most disturbing is the timing of her reports and testimony. Her Saunders expert report is dated October 22, 2014, but she was prepared to testify until the case was settled in March 2015. Her Durand expert report is dated June 29, 2016, and her deposition was given on August 16, 2016. According to her Durand report, she was scheduled to provide expert testimony against the interests of a deaf person accused of a crime on July 8, 2016.
Anna Witter-Merithew was employed by the RID as its Executive Director from March 2015 to July 2017. The Saunders case immediately preceded her hire, and her report should have disqualified her from the executive director position. She continued to provide testimony and reports throughout her term on behalf of defendants sued for allegedly violating the civil rights of deaf people.
The NAD believes that Ms. Witter-Merithew’s statements on behalf of defendants against deaf people seeking access to equally effective communication is completely inconsistent with advocacy for the civil rights of deaf people and undermines interpreters as a profession. And, in the Durand case, she has done this while stating that she is the Executive Director of the RID.
The NAD considers unacceptable any statement by an interpreter acting as an expert witness in opposition to the assertion of critical civil rights of deaf people. Also unacceptable are any such statements made by the executive director of RID or any staff of the RID.
To rectify Ms. Witter-Merithew’s actions, the NAD demands that the RID make three public statements as follows:
- The RID will declare that it agrees with the NAD that the Code of Professional Conduct (CPC) needs to be updated to prohibit any interpreter from providing expert witness testimony or reports opposing the civil or linguistic rights of any deaf or hard of hearing person, and will expedite its committee work with the NAD to revamp the CPC;
- The RID will declare that it prohibits all of its staff and board members from making any statements or engaging in any conduct that is adverse to the civil or linguistic rights of any deaf or hard of hearing person; and
- The RID will disavow expert witness reports and testimony by RID staff and board members that are adverse to the civil and linguistic rights of deaf and hard of hearing persons, and declare that the RID renounces the reports and testimony given in the Saunders and Durand cases as well as any other similar cases.
The RID has an obligation to take these corrective steps with respect to the actions taken by its previous executive director, and these statements that NAD requests above are the minimum that the RID owes to both the deaf community and the interpreting community.
While the NAD and RID no longer have a partnership on certification, we have been engaged in a dialogue about the CPC and other areas of mutual interest. Given this situation, however, the NAD cannot engage in any further collaboration with the RID until such corrective actions are taken.
Howard A. Rosenblum
Chief Executive Officer