Sunday, November 30, 2014

Special treatment

A few weeks ago I had lunch with an attorney I admire a lot, an accomplishment man many years my senior. The way he carries himself and how he reacts to people around him is not something you see often. A quality I can't quite explain, but I call "old school". He has the type of practice I had always respected and dreamt of having one day. One where books are used for research and old furniture gives potential clients a sense of calmness and confidence. Where knowledgeable is not the same thing as cocky and effective doesn't mean loud or aggressive. A man  who knows his profession, who spent his entire life developing and fine tuning his skilled. We've met to see if there's a way we could work together to have the Florida Bar educate lawyers on how to approach and deal with people with disabilities. That's the one thing- despite all of his life experiences and legal skills- that he knew nothing about. And there's a lot of other lawyers that don't know how to conduct themselves in that situation either. I don't even mean the legal standard, although the Americans with Disabilities Act is still very young, and ever changing. The recent amendments have pushed it more and more to the direction of the person with disability being the main source of information of disability and how it needs to be accommodated. But I'm talking about things even more basic, how to set up your office, how to approach your client/opposing counsel, what not to do, what to say and what not to say. You could tell, he wasn't very comfortable with the subject matter, wasn't sure what language was appropriate and kept calling disabilities "challenges". And yes, in the last 25 years tremendous progress has been made in how we look and relate to people with those needs both in the field of awareness and inclusion and it's hard to keep up. We then got to talk about issues involving accommodations. And yes again, I understand that historically it's a fairly new concept- back in the day if you couldn't do something, you couldn't do something, end of story. Nobody stopped to think how we could modify the testing circumstances (or your work place) for example in a way that would still be fair to you and to others but focus on your talent, skill or ability without modifying the substance. And while I know there's some people who adopted the "look at me, I have a disability, I deserve special treatment"- as somebody posted something on our Foundation's wall about Florida not giving enough to people with special needs- I believe it's a minority. And while it may be a thin line between "special treatment" and "reasonable accommodations" we have case law after case law of institutions shown that their not doing enough, that they're in fact discriminating. I want to make it clear that both UF and the Florida Bar have never had any problems with any of my accommodations request. As I have functional use of only one hand - I was always given a scribe and extra time, while it is the disability resource center that suggested I also got untimed bathroom breaks if I ever needed to use the restroom. It is not as clear cut and set as you might think. The LSAC- a private entity that administers a test that is the basis of admission to all American law schools, was only few investigated by the Department of Justice and put on probation, while I almost sued my city for the way their city bus handles wheelchair passengers a few years ago. And to think their ADA person is working with one of the big disability institutions- I think Center for Independent Living. Just because somebody sings off on something doesn't mean your out of the woods. As we had our lunch and he told me of the few particularly loud bar applicants unhappy with   the accommodations they got or didn't get, I reserved my judgment. Years ago I was coming at the LSAC and nobody would listen. Those stories, yes they sound crazy. But if need be, the court will decide what is and what isn't reasonable. While every set of circumstances is unique I hope that he doesn't take away from it that disability accommodations  are some form of special treatment. That you get it because you're loud and make demands- not because you absolutely need it. I can't speak for everyone, but I know that I worked hard for absolutely everything I accomplished. Nobody gave me anything and life threw at me plenty. Yes, there were situations that I received reasonable accommodations, did it affect the test in any other way than letting me finish it? I don't think so. It would be really hurtful if people I respected thought of those as something "I get" versus something "I need". Trust me, it's no ball. I didn't ask to be born this way. But still, even if they don't know, I can't hold it against them. It's just something that they were not educated on, not their experience, not their time.

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