Bill Lann Lee, Acting Director of the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, met on January 30 with a few dozen disability leaders to discuss issues pertaining to enforcement of disability rights laws, including the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act.
Sources say the meeting was called, at least in part, in response to a report published by Mouth magazine in its March issue charging a lack of interest in enforcing laws or handling complaints.
One participant made the point that enforcement of the ADA could not be "softened to avoid backlash." It would be "a shame if technical assistance rather than litigation were the legacy" of the Disability Rights Section, another pointed out.
One of the issues that has troubled Mouth is the perception that "the freedom of our people is not on the Civil Rights Division's agenda," as Mouth Editor Lucy Gwin wrote to Lee in a letter following the meeting.
But others attending the meeting were cheered that Lee seemed genuinely interested in the issues ("he took copious notes," one said.). He appeared at certain points in the one-hour meeting to be learning of many disability rights issues for the first time - a fact that, if true, said sources, would not bode well for counsel Liz Savage, whose job it is to convey the concerns of the disability community to the Civil Rights Division.
Lee at times appeared to understand the issues better than longtime staffers - particularly the issue of nursing home "incarcerations," said one source.
When a Section staffer responded to a question about what the Division was doing to "free the 2.4 million Americans with disabilities imprisoned within segregated institutions" by explaining that the Special Litigation Unit responsible for enforcing CRIPA was continuing to send out Letters of Findings to various state institutions about violations, Lee reportedly pointed out to the staffer that the questioner was not talking about state-run institutions but "about the other 95 percent" - i.e., privately run facilities and nursing homes. It was the assessment of one source at the meeting that Lee "is not on our page, but not far off."
Follow-up meetings will reportedly be scheduled on specific issues. But what will come of any of this discussion remains unclear.
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