April 7, 2016

Diversity and Disability

Last Thursday and Friday (March 31st and April 1st), I attended the 2016 Jacobus tenBroek Disability Law Symposium in Baltimore, Maryland. 


The conference at the National Federation of the Blind


Baltimore Harbor at night

This annual symposium, named in honor of Dr. Jacobus tenBroek, brings together disability rights scholars and practitioners to discuss current disability law issues and impact litigation.  Dr. tenBroek served the public in many roles, for example, as a constitutional law scholar at UC Berkeley and a leader of the blind civil rights movement.  As a civil rights activist, Dr. tenBroek understood the importance of cross-movement coalitions to increase the political power of the disenfranchised.  He advocated for the "right to live in the world" for people with disabilities:

The right of access to public accommodations and common carriers is a civil right. It is a basic right indispensable to participation in the community, a substantive right to which all are fully and equally entitled.

Jacobus tenBroek, The Right to Live in the World: The Disabled in the Law of Torts, 54 CAL. L. REV. 841, 858 (1966).

Race is a little discussed topic in the disability rights movement despite its connection to some of the central issues of racial justice today.  For example, disability should be front and center in legal and policy discussions about prisoners' rights (approximately 24-37% of all people in prisons and jails in the U.S. self-report as people with disabilities and are disproportionately people of color).   

This year's symposium brought diversity to the forefront of the conversation.  "Diversity in the Disability Rights Movement: Working Together to Achieve the Right to Live in the World" raised difficult issues about race, gender, and sexual orientation.   I attended a breakout session on the intersection of trans rights and disability that was facilitated by Victoria M. Rodríguez-Roldán, Director, Trans and Gender Non-Conforming Justice Project, National LGBTQ Task Force.  A packed room of legal scholars and practitioners shared ideas on how the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act can be used to remedy discrimination against trans people with disabilities.  Claudia Center, Senior Staff Attorney in the Disability Rights section of the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation discussed the applicability of the ADA to police arrests following the Supreme Court decision in City and County of San Francisco v. Sheehan, 135 S.Ct. 1765 (2015).  While the Court appears to have answered the question as to whether the ADA applies to police arrests (turning on whether police arrests constitute a "program or service" under Title II of the ADA), the question of what constitutes "reasonable accommodations" in the context of arrests remains unanswered. 


Judge Thompson addressing attendees at the luncheon

The highlight of the symposium for me - other than having a chance to exchange ideas with disability practitioners and scholars - was the keynote address by the Honorable Myron H. Thompson, U.S. District Judge, United States District Court for the Middle District of Alabama.  Judge Thompson, an African American federal judge with a disability (childhood polio), shared the role of race and disability in constructing identity.  He emphasized the power of internal stigma that comes from low expectations and invisibility and the therapeutic potential of community building and cross-movement pollination.  Judge Thomson reminded the conference participants of the legacy of Dr. tenBroek and called for greater educational opportunities for law students to understand that disability rights are civil and human rights.  He encouraged law schools to build a disability rights law curriculum and law professors to build connections across subject areas so that the next generation recognizes the interconnectivity of race, ethnicity, disability, class, gender, and sexual orientation.  

Judge Thompson was energized when he learned that UC Davis is among a small group of law schools offering disability rights courses taught by full time professors, supporting a student-led Disability Law Society, and regularly inviting practitioners and scholars to discuss disability rights. 

Two King Hall alumnae practicing disability law approached me after the lunch discussion to introduce themselves and applaud King Hall's commitment to disability rights.  I look forward to bringing them back to King Hall in the future to speak with students about careers in disability rights.