Friday, May 4, 2012

Put disability in diversity

In America it seems that every time we talk about diversity we really mean race, color and gender. It makes sense to an extent. Those are the groups that traditionally have had worse access to education, been subjected to prejudice and unrepresented in many professions. Not to say that those issues have gone away and are now solved, but we do talk about them, we do recognize them and we have highly publicized programs trying to remedy the situation. If anything, as a foreigner I’m shocked how deeply rooted those problems are. I may not be a Hillary Clinton supporter but it was still eye opening to see how the gender factor becomes a part of the discussion on her fitness for office during the Presidential campaign, how people dissect her wardrobe and make up, how in a XXI century America a woman running for something suddenly becomes a big deal. But, when times change we see that there are other issues as well. Diversity is not only a race/gender problem. There are other groups with their problems coming to light only recently. I would think that economic status is one of them as it severely affects access to education, job perspectives and self image and last but not least – disability.
During my combined time at the Levin College of Law (5-6 years) I have only seen two other students in wheelchairs. One of them I believe was a wounded soldier, so he never had to deal with what individuals with childhood disabilities face going through lower levels of schooling. When I was attending a number of these prejudice forums and panels and- again a funny thing- only this year the City of Gainesville decided to expand the topics of their community meetings beyond race and color, one thing was clear. The under representation of the black population among people that get advanced degrees or even go to college stems from the fact that many drop out of high school. Before you get to an university you need access to elementary and high school education and good enough for you to be able to compete for entry to those higher level institutions. It sounds obvious and is true across the board. Individuals with disabilities may not be dropping out, but the problem is essentially similar. You need to get them to through a good elementary and high school, give them an actual education, the drive to learn and the hope that they can improve their own conditions. In their case the exclusion from the system is often involuntary. It’s not that many of the kids with physical or intellectual conditions don’t want  or are unable to learn. Sometimes they face problems that have nothing to do  with their abilities. During my time at The Jordan Klausner Foundation I’ve noted that many of the parents  of Cerebral Palsy really struggled educating their children. Negotiating with school boards became a problem to an extent that some were looking to consult an attorney. Some were poor. Some were uneducated and didn’t know either that they have rights or how to go about them. Some were single parents. And with a child with disability even a thing that seems very technical like transportation can become a major roadblock that may derail any plans for further education. As you go further it becomes more complicated with accommodated testing, formalities, navigating between all these other institutions. To take the LSAT, to even think of becoming a lawyer or any one of these other high end professions you need to take all the steps that get you here. So many things can go wrong along the way. And even then, you may not get it. No wonder so few people end up on top. I have only lived in America for 8 years, but I‘ve already lived through my share of prejudice, injustice, neglect from a number of people and institution. That’s why we want to focus on education in disability law not only in our practice but also teaching the public. A mind is a horrible thing to waste. There are too many opportunities to waste them along the way. People don’t know they have rights. Some of them are told they don’t have any. When they call to complain they may be told they don’t have a complaint. Or that they lack standing.  As we go into communities and promote accessibility, education and inclusion, some of the people we talk to may be future attorneys. Or Supreme Court Justices. By providing more awareness in the general public, we can help The Florida Bar to realize its diversity aspirations. The American Bar Association Journal also addressed the issue of disability in the diversity mix:

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