A women's political organization has drawn ire from a deaf disability advocate, who claims it denied her request for an American Sign Language interpreter at an event.
She Should Run is a Washington, DC–based organization that works to increase the number of women who run for office. Its goal is to have 250,000 women run for local, state, and federal offices by 2030. The group's website boasts that its work has prompted nearly 22,000 women to consider a run.
One of the women who was drawn in by She Should Run's work is Mary Harman, a 26-year-old woman in Honolulu. She told BuzzFeed News she's followed the organization for a couple of years now, and more recently was interested in a seminar on imposter syndrome.
After registering on Aug. 5, Harman said she reached out to She Should Run via Eventbrite to request an ASL interpreter for the event.
She said she got a response back from Jarinete Santos, She Should Run’s political pipeline director, who told her "unfortunately, we do not have the ability to provide an ASL interpreter for our events."
"However, all participants are welcome to provide questions for our speakers in advance and all events are recorded, captioned, and made available within a week of the live event," Santos said in an email reviewed by BuzzFeed News. "While I recognize that this provides the information on a delayed schedule, it does not alter the content or experience of the event."
In response to Harman's complaints, a spokesperson from She Should Run told BuzzFeed News that the group initially attempted to "accommodate Mary’s request" by providing live captioning for the event and that the event was also recorded. Santos did not return a request for comment.
For Harman, that didn't cut it. In her reply, she said the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) mandates equal access and that she would need an ASL interpreter to properly access the event.
"I then explained that making the webinar accessible after the fact denies individuals with disabilities the equal opportunity to participate in the webinar, which is a direct violation of the ADA," she said. "After all, at the heart of the ADA is equal access, and equal access is just that — equal — and not at a later time."
Harman did decide to attend the virtual event on Aug. 13 but said the promised real-time captioning was inaccurate and lagging. After that, Harman followed up saying a formal complaint would be filed if they did not respond to her. On Aug. 15, Harman did just that with DC’s Office of Human Rights.
Harman also went public on social media, detailing the issues in a post.
"Businesses and organizations, STOP violating the ADA and understand your legal obligations. Stop forcing people with disabilities to explain the law to you and fight for their basic human rights to be enforced," she wrote.
She said others in the deaf community "really stepped up" after the vlog and getting She Should Run to respond was far from a solo effort.
"They reposted my video by the hundreds, tagging SSR and Ms. Loos Cutraro and commented on SSR’s posts, demanding that they be accessible, and called out several posts made by SSR about diversity and the barriers women face when pursuing elected leadership," she said.
After filing her complaint, Harman said she received an email from She Should Run's CEO and founder, Erin Loos Cutraro.
"Unfortunately, she seemed oblivious to the real issue, which was the repeated refusal to provide an ASL interpreter and engage with me," said Harman. Rather, she said, the email was more of an apology for the poor captioning and a promise to do better going forward.
"We were doing the best that we could to provide the best service at that point and unfortunately in the case of the close[d] captioning service we provided for that service, it was disappointing," Cutraro told BuzzFeed News. "I know Mary was disappointed with it, we were disappointed with it. It wasn’t keeping up and I can only imagine how frustrating that would be."
On its blog, She Should Run also posted about "commitment to accessibility" and outlined how the organization plans to handle accommodation better in the future. Those commitments included making sure there was a process for women with disabilities to request accommodations.
Cutraro told BuzzFeed News that after Harman filed her complaint, "we felt we had no choice but to seek legal counsel on how best to respond to this legal matter."
"That process took a few days and I regret that the silence for some during that period, including for Mary, seemed to speak volumes," she said. "It is possible that during that time while we were seeking counsel, those with limited knowledge of what was happening in the legal conversations could have perceived that we were trying to block access in some way. I can assure you that that could not be further from the truth."
She added: "We are in the business of making it easier for women, like Mary, who want to explore a run for office in their community, state, or country to be able to do just that. As part of this effort, we are committed to always learning and listening for ways we can do better."
At this point, Harman said there's not much She Should Run can do now to amend the webinar situation.
"However, moving forward, they need to be fully committed to making their programs, services, and activities accessible to all people, including those with disabilities," she said.
"I decided to bring this to public light because this happens too often. Deaf and hard of hearing individuals are often excluded from society even though covered entities have a clear legal obligation to make their programs, services, and activities accessible to all."