“Common Human Decency”—Best Practices For Lawyers Working With Clients with Disabilities

April 9, 2019

Disability Justice, News, Pro Bono Clearinghouse

NYLPI’s Director of Disability Justice, Ruth Lowenkron, (second from left, above) and Senior Social Worker Michelle Kraus (third from right) were featured on a New York City Bar Association Pro Bono and Legal Services Committee Best Practices panel this morning about working with clients with disabilities, hosted at the Times Square office of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP.

“What’s good for people with disabilities is often good for everyone else, as well,” said Ruth. “This is a piece of how we think about working with people with disabilities, and I think you too should think like this. ‘I’m not only going to do this for them, but also for the broader world that will benefit from these kinds of changes.’”

The panel also featured Christina Curry, Executive Director of the Harlem Independent Living Center (far left, above), Kleo King, General Counsel for the New York City Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities (third from left, above), and Jim Weisman, CEO of the United Spinal Association (second from right). It was chaired by Jennifer Cowan, Pro Bono Counsel and Litigation Counsel at Debevoise & Plimpton, LLP (above, right).

The panel began by defining what a person with disabilities is, and began by discussing invisible disabilities. Beyond the legal definition of having a substantial impairment, there are also other kinds of disabilities.

“We can’t know, we can’t just look at somebody and know if they are or if they aren’t disabled,” said Michelle. “I think the most important thing to think about is if the person themselves identifies that way, but understanding what the risks and benefits are.”

The panel discussed litigation strategies protecting clients from inappropriate services from schools, in housing, and in transportation. Also, they touched on legal work in domestic matters such as divorces, and in employment discrimination.

People in law firms don’t work with people with disabilities every day, Jennifer said. So: Are there pieces of information that they might find helpful to know?

The theme of “common human decency” came up repeatedly.

Ruth said lawyers should concentrate primarily on the story that the client is bringing to them, rather than thinking of them primarily as a person with a disability. If the client also happens to use a wheelchair, for example, then a lawyer should make arrangements that are accessible. Michelle said it’s important to consider communication preferences, preferred timing related to medications, or offering extra time for clients with intellectual disabilities. Special training isn’t required, said Jim, adding that the most popular publication from United Spinal is this one, called “disability etiquette”, because people are anxious about working with people with disabilities. But it’s important to handle situations with people with disabilities as you might with any other person, he said. And there is a lot to be said for training people so that they are able to exercise their decency.

“If you’re boorish, or a jerk, you’re probably going to deal with this badly, just like you deal with everybody else,” Jim said. “I’ve never really experienced a higher degree of difficulty in people with disabilities than everybody else. If people get your intentions, they’ll instruct you what to do. If people get that you’re being stand-offish, they’re going to become a harder client, too. But most people trust the lawyer they’re talking to, and they want to meet you half way.”

A full room of about 50 people paid attention to the panel.

Christina said it’s imperative that law firms provide translators for people with communications challenges, and that people on the front desk of organizations often do benefit from training.

“My IQ didn’t drop because I’m deaf,” she said. “Don’t speak slowly to me. And also, don’t assume I can write back and forth. If I’ve asked for a translator, you’re required to have a translator for me from that point on.”

Jennifer asked about whether the high cost of translators might be a barrier for pro bono work, but Christina pushed back.

“No matter how much you think you can’t afford, you can’t afford it, because you don’t want to be on the other end explaining to a judge why you didn’t provide an interpreter. It’s about communication. It’s about the law. The federal law says you must provide a reasonable accommodation. That’s the way has been since 1990. It sucks, sometimes, yes. My agency has to pay, just like every other agency. But it’s about access. It’s about being on the same footing as your peers. The average translator costs $80 an hour. And you have to pay it.”

From the audience, Jackie Haberfeld, Kirkland & Ellis, LLP, pointed out that not all clients are literate, and that they do often hide the fact that they can’t read. She added that American Sign Language is different from sign language around the world.

Christina said black and brown clients with disabilities are sometimes labeled as being hostile or aggressive in lawyers’ offices because of racist stereotypes, or because of stigma about their disabilities.

“I might then have a conversation with a client from Harlem about using their ‘inside voice’, or the voice they might use below 96th street, in the lawyer’s office, just so that people feel comfortable,” she said, prompting laughs from some audience members. “But on the other side, we shouldn’t assume that just because somebody is irritated because they can’t get to their appointment on time, or because they’re from a different culture, it may be about their mental health. We have to let people be themselves.”

At the same time, there was encouragement to law firms to take on cases related to disability justice.

Don’t be shy to take cases on disability rights issues,” said NYLPI Senior Social Worker Paola Martinez-Boone, in the audience. “Whatever assistance you need from us, we’re always there. We’re able to support you. You support us in taking our cases, and we thank you for that, but we’re also there for you at any time.”

“The etiquette, or training for working for working with people with disabilities, I think, is very important for firms to use,” said Jessica Champagnie, Social Work Intern with NYLPI, in the audience. “I don’t like the word disability because the Latin prefix ‘dis’ implies there’s something less about me, and I don’t think there’s anything less about my beautiful pink power chair. I’ve been on the other side of people asking how can she be employed? My IQ didn’t drop because I’m in this beautiful pink power chair. It’s important that companies understand we don’t want to be late. How you speak to us, and also language, is very important. Just as sexual harassment training is important, I think [disability] etiquette language and training is also very important.”

Erin Walczewski, pro bono counsel with Cooley, asked where to direct clients with small businesses who are looking to improve their accessibility. Jim said his organization helps with physical access, as well as with website communications because websites should be compliant with international accessibility standards around disability access. Kleo said there is a small business resources page at the New York City Mayor’s office, and said the New York State Department of Small Business Services knows all the permits that are required, and can help small businesses to negotiate that process. Christina recommended Independent Living Centers around the state.

Christina said it’s best for lawyers not to obsess over working with people with disabilities. “If you’re uncomfortable or you don’t know what to do, just say, ‘I’ve never worked with someone with your disability,’” she said. “And take it from there.

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