By W. Carol Cleigh I haven't done a survey, but I assume that most law schools teach students about the Americans with Disabilities Act and other disability rights laws. I imagine that most lawyers know that such laws exist and where to look up the regulations. Most, however, don't give students practical experience representing people with disabilities, nor do they give them access to disability-rights advocates. Very few young lawyers graduate with the experience of having made a place accessible.
In 1999, Steven Greenberger founded the Disability Rights Clinic at DePaul University. The clinic has the dual purpose of representing disabled people on a pro bono basis (free) and of training young lawyers in the hope that they will devote time to disability rights law after graduation.
The 20 to 25 students who have gone through the program started with the basics: ADA Title III, its regulations and the ADA Accessibility Guidelines -- the ADAAG -- are required reading. But most of their training comes from handling actual cases. They work closely with Prof. Greenberger, but they do all of the job of preparing and presenting the case. Working in this environment provides experience that law students couldn't get any other way. It certainly provides more depth of understanding of disability rights law, and why it is needed, than they could get any other way.
For the disability community, the clinic is a major advantage. It gives us a powerful tool to make businesses comply. It also gives us hope that in the future we'll have a lot more attorneys who understand the ADA.
In less than three years, the clinic has made 25 to 30 places accessible, most of them places that a specific disabled person actually wanted to use -- and now can. Most of the clinic's cases come from people with disabilities filing complaints. A student investigates the complaint, but very few are rejected as unfounded. Most are clear violations of the ADA.
Once a complaint is confirmed, the student looks for a cause of action -- that is, determines which specific regulations were violated. They may also research the property to determine who is responsible. Research may also be needed into specific case law -- that is, to find out cases that have already been decided in court and have created a precedent. Finally, they strategize with Prof. Greenberger to decide what action to take.
Prof. Greenberger says that although they are under no obligation to send a letter to request compliance, they often do so if the business has not been made aware of the problem by direct complaints and is not a national chain. Some businesses correct the problem when they receive the letter. Some ignore the letter, and others have ignored repeated complaints, often over several years, from the client. These businesses are sued.
The clinic also does surveys in poor neighborhoods looking for violations, believing that it is particularly important to get violations corrected in neighborhoods where people with disabilities have little choice of stores to patronize.
Although start-up funding was obtained from DePaul University's general legal clinic, the Disability Rights Clinic has been self-supporting almost from its beginning. It is, however, a very lean budget. Most of the costs consist of filing fees ($150 to file a federal lawsuit), paying court reporters for depositions, and paying transportation expenses. Since damages are not available under Title III, the clinic's only source of support is winning cases and obtaining legal fees from defendants.
The Disability Rights Clinic has never lost a case. Prof. Greenberger acknowledges that most settle because the violations are so clear-cut that defendants have no argument to make. Prof. Greenberger also says that it's "great to be able to do some important, if riskier cases" since no one is dependent upon the clinic for a living.
Seeing our work bear fruit -- a ramp built or Braille menus made available -- creates a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment. It lifts my spirits every time I go by a place I had a hand in making accessible, and even more to see someone I don't even know using the access I helped create. I hope attorneys who work with us feel the same satisfaction. I hope that many will dedicate at least some of their time to creating that satisfaction for themselves and others through long and prosperous careers. I also hope that other law schools will decide to give their students similar opportunities.
Carol Cleigh, co-founder of the Suburban Access Squad, is Development Coordinator at the Progress Center for Independent Living and serves on the national board of Not Dead Yet..
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