The Utah County Republican Party and Utah Republican Party settled a lawsuit filed by two party members who allege the groups violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, by not reasonably accommodating their disabilities.
As part of the settlement, which was entered on Tuesday, the Utah Republican Party said it will update “its governing documents to reflect that ADA compliance is mandated for its political caucuses and conventions.”
In 2016, Aaron Heineman, who is deaf, tried to arrange for an American Sign Language, or ASL, interpreter to attend a local caucus so he could participate and give prepared remarks, according to the lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court.
The county GOP planned to have an interpreter from Interwest Interpreting Agency attend but canceled after the precinct chair said they had arranged for other interpreters to be there, the lawsuit said.
When Heineman arrived to the meeting on March 22, there were no interpreters present. Another participant attempted to interpret for Heineman as he gave his speech, but he lacked proficiency in ASL and struggled to translate, according to the lawsuit. Without an adequate interpreter to help him track the time of his speech, he went over the two-minute time limit and was cut off.
“Mr. Heineman’s unfortunate experience at the caucus substantially impaired his ability to engage in political speech and participate in the political process,” the lawsuit said.
Another plaintiff in the case, Eliza Stauffer, said she attended the April 23 Utah Republican Party State Convention as a delegate. Stauffer, who uses a wheelchair, alleged there were no designated seating areas for individuals with a disability.
During the convention, a “stand-up” vote was called for a resolution, prompting Stauffer and others to object because they were unable to stand. Still, a stand-up vote was taken, the lawsuit alleged.
“This decision led to the disenfranchisement of all delegates with a disability who were unable to stand,” the lawsuit said.
The settlement stipulates that the state and county Republican parties will not call for standing votes “without a reasonable accommodation” and “will include ADA training in its preparation for the upcoming caucus and conventions for the 2020 election cycle.”
Additionally, the defendants agreed to pay Heineman and Stauffer’s legal counsel $15,000.
Stewart Peay, who is chair of the Utah County Republican Party, said the party wants people of all abilities to feel included and have their accommodations met.
“We want to make sure that all people, all Republicans, know that they are able to participate in the political process,” Peay said.
Utah Republican Party chair Derek Brown said encouraging participation in caucuses, conventions and other political events is “one of our primary objectives.”
“We will be doing everything that we can to make sure that individuals with disabilities are welcome and that they are fully participating in everything that takes place in these meetings,” Brown said.
The Utah Association of the Deaf was named as a plaintiff in the lawsuit. The group’s president, Kim Smith, called the settlement a “victory” that “solidifies the right of Deaf people to be provided with full access to effective communications.”
“We hope that this settlement agreement will serve as a model for other Utah political parties and political parties across the United States to allow members of the Deaf community to participate in future elections,” Smith said in a written statement.
“This is a nationwide problem,” said Jared Allebest, an attorney who represented Heineman and Stauffer. “It’s not a problem in just Utah alone.”