One Of The Country’s First Elected Officials With Autism Wins Discrimination Case
HARTFORD, Conn. — Sarah Selvaggi Hernandez, an occupational therapist who has autism and is deaf, recently won her municipal discrimination lawsuit in a U.S. District Court in Connecticut after a legal battle that spanned more than four years.
In a unanimous decision, a federal jury returned a verdict in favor of Hernandez, a former town of Enfield elected official who argued that the town and its board of education violated her civil rights by failing to provide accommodations for her disabilities during her tenure as a board member.
Hernandez and her lawyers said the case, which found Enfield and the board of education liable for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act, is a major win for disability rights and representation in government and sets a new precedent in the state.
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“People with disabilities are often dismissed and seen as incapable or (that) we can’t do the hard thing,” Hernandez said. “Persisting through four and a half years of this lawsuit, for me, was affirmation that we can do the hard thing and we’re showing up to do the work.”
The jury’s verdict found that the defendants did not provide Hernandez with “effective communication and reasonable modifications” to fulfill her duties on the board. It further found that Enfield and the board of education, by a preponderance of the evidence, violated Title II of the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act by excluding Hernandez from equal participation, denying equal access, and subjecting Hernandez to discrimination during her tenure.
As one of the first elected officials in the country to be open about having autism, Hernandez hopes her experience will show others that they can find success in government.
“I’m hoping that those who are currently serving will feel empowered to be open about their disability identity, because we need more representation, and I know it’s out there,” Hernandez said. “I’m also hopeful that for the people to come, they never have to encounter these barriers (and) that people will start actively considering how to be inclusive at the local and state and federal levels.”
Hernandez was elected to the Enfield Board of Education in 2017. After being open about having autism and being deaf during her run for office, Hernandez said that during her two years of service, fellow board members repeatedly denied her requests for disability accommodations, which included communicating through writing and text, taking notes during meetings, and requiring speakers to face Hernandez so she could read lips as they addressed the board.
Hernandez said the board’s hostility and refusal culminated in an incident in June of 2019 that made it clear to Hernandez that her accommodations were blatantly denied.
“I knew that there was something wrong. I knew that I was a qualified individual and that I deserved equity and access,” Hernandez said.
Recognizing her privilege as a white, educated, woman, Hernandez said fighting the injustice became “a moral imperative,” not just for herself but for others.
“When you know your rights you can stand up for them and you can be supported,” Hernandez said.
In the end, the jury awarded Hernandez $10 in nominal damages.
“I was like, ‘Y’all could have at least validated my parking,’ because that’s $13 down at the courthouse,” Hernandez cheekily teased. But in all honesty, Hernandez said the lawsuit “was never about money.”
“It was four and a half years of my intense labor,” Hernandez said. “The $10 at the end … it was just signifying (you are) done with the case … (and) of course, a victory.”
Hernandez said the outcome was impacted by a 2022 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that plaintiffs alleging discrimination under the Rehabilitation Act and the Affordable Care Act cannot recover emotional distress damages.
“There’s a lot of other people who are going to be tremendously impacted by the Supreme Court decision,” Hernandez said. “And that just reaffirms and reinforces why it was important for me to do this work now.”
Enfield’s mayor, Ken Nelson Jr., declined to comment on the verdict. The Courant reached out to but did not hear back from lawyers representing the town and board of education in the case.
A new precedent
Hernandez’s lawyers said they fought hard to prove that Enfield was responsible for the conduct of its board members. They said Hernandez’s win sends a uniform message to elected officials and municipalities.
“In Connecticut, it is precedent,” Kasey Considine, the supervising attorney for Disability Rights Connecticut who represented Hernandez alongside the lawyers from the firm Brown, Goldstein & Levy. “The court said, ‘Town of Enfield, you cannot delegate away your ADA obligations.'”
Considine said Hernadez’s case emphasizes why local elections matter.
“We disabled people are a huge percentage of our population, and disability is not a static thing. It’s not a monolithic thing. And I think this is a great example of visibility,” Considine said. “We have civil rights laws for a reason, It just really stinks that we had to file a lawsuit to enforce our civil rights.”
While the jury issued its final verdict, Considine said the case is not over.
The town of Enfield and the board of education have objected to a motion from Hernandez’s legal team seeking declaratory judgment and injunctive relief against the defendants.
The motion asks the judge to affirm the jury’s ruling by declaring that Enfield and the board of education did violate federal civil rights statutes, and ordering that the defendants cease discriminating on the basis of disability.
Considine said that a ruling in Hernandez’ favor would require Enfield and the board of education to develop, implement and train town officials on an ADA policy to prevent future discrimination.
“There’s still work to be done to make sure that Sarah’s not subjected to disability discrimination if she runs again as a candidate in Enfield,” Considine said.
Hernandez said it was a “treasure to serve” and she would love to run for office again “if that process is accessible for me.”
“There was a movement at the time to bring kindness back into community conversations, and I hope that I did that and plan to continue doing it,” Hernandez said.
Hernandez highlighted two phrases she holds close in her fight for representation: The disability rights slogan, “Nothing about us, without us” and Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s famous “When there are nine” quote.
When people ask how accommodating the system should be, Hernandez said when everyone with a seat at the table has a disability.
“In government today, there’s so many conflicts and problems and frustrations. Why not go to the people who literally, every day are encountering these barriers and they’re successful,” Hernandez said. “We know the pattern, we know the path, and we could be so incredible in government positions because we see areas of opportunity where other people might not. We see barriers that other people might never ever encounter.”
“We shouldn’t just be considered, we should be at the table making these decisions, creating these policies,” Hernandez added. “We are people and we are valuable to our communities and we deserve access.”
© 2024 Hartford Courant
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC
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