Attorney Profile: Disclosing My Disability

After much deliberation about disclosing my disability on my online attorney profile, I decided to go full monty and disclose a full picture. Perhaps it makes sense for me to disclose my disability, since I am starting a disability law practice. But I am still nervous that some potential clients would be hesitant to hire me because of my disability.

When I was about to graduate law school, I had a conversation about disclosing my disability with my Employment Discrimination Law Professor. She encouraged me to disclose my disability, saying that employers would eventually find out that I have a disability and that I shouldn’t waste my time with the ones that discriminate. She added that I would find the right office that would accept me and my disability. After about six years of agonizing job applications, I have come to realize that no such office exists. But I am hopeful that my potential clients will be different.

Here’s my blurb for my up and coming website for my law practice:

Profile Picture of Esther Lee

Profile Picture of Esther Lee

My name is Esther S. Lee.  I am an attorney with a disability.  My Cerebral Palsy affects my speech and mobility, but not my spirit.  I received honors distinctions from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign with a B.A. in English and Rhetoric.  I graduated from the University of California Davis, School of Law, with a focus on civil rights and public interest law.  In addition to being an attorney, I am starting a non-profit housing cooperative for people with and without disabilities, called Able Community.  My extensive background advancing the rights of people with disabilities includes legal work at multiple disability rights organizations and disability policy work at the White House.  I am committed to empowering people with disabilities and underrepresented communities, advancing their rights and quality of life through legal advocacy.

Our office is an affordable, socially conscious law practice advocating for people with disabilities and their families’ every day legal needs.  The practice focuses on Social Security, Special Education, housing, disability, and administrative law; as well as advancing the Civil Rights of all people in Illinois and California.

Experience:

  • Successfully fought apartment management companies and university housing to modify units for increased ADA accessibility.
  • Successfully initiated Social Security applications and assisted with appearances.
  • Successfully resolved fence encroachment matters between neighbors.
  • Successfully reduced and appealed Cook County property tax assessments.
  • Successfully negotiated medical bills in a medical negligence case.
  • Successfully completed mediations, administrative reviews, administrative fair hearings, 4731 complaints for Regional Center disabilities services in California.
  • Successfully completed mediations and administrative review process for Department of Rehabilitation services.

Pro Bono Experience:

  • White House: Engaged in disability policy and outreach to the disability community.
  • Legal Assistance Foundation’s Special Education Pro Bono Panel: Trained to provide legal representation and advocacy in Special Education matters.
  • Access Living—Civil Rights Team (Chicago’s Independent Living Center): Advanced disability rights in housing and community integration litigation.
  • Disability Rights California’s Office of Clients’ Rights Advocates: Advocated for clients with developmental disabilities in Special Education, employment discrimination, and wrote a letter to stop harassing a client who was manipulated into purchasing an expensive household item he did not need.
  • Aids Legal Council of Chicago: Advocated for adults and children with disabilities in Social Security Disability Insurance and Social Security Income appeals before the Social Security Administration and Federal Court.
  • Legal Services of Northern California: Provided legal advice to low-income and elderly clients on topics including landlord-tenant issues, housing, and professional licensing.
  • Coordinated Advice and Referral Program for Legal Services (CARPLS): Assisted clients in creditor, housing, and family law self-help matters on a legal assistance hotline.
  • Civil Rights Clinic: Represented a former prisoner in a medical negligence (personal injury) case against prison personnel.
  • Homeless Action Center: Worked on Social Security applications and appeals for homeless and low income individuals.

Any feedback on this bio or thoughts on disclosing one’s disability on one’s profile?

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Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg: A Parallel Between Disability and Women’s Rights

This past Monday I attended a luncheon hosted by the Chicago Bar Association, featuring U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (AKA Notorious R.B.G.). Justice Ginsburg was asked about her quote that “Impediments turn out to be good fortune.” She elaborated that if she and the other female Supreme Court Justices did not face the adversity and discrimination that they encountered in employment, they probably would be retired law firm partners by now, instead of shaping the direction of the U.S. legal system on the Supreme Court.

A Notorious R.B.G. t-shirt from http://notoriousrbg.tumblr.com

A Notorious R.B.G. t-shirt from notoriousrbg.tumblr.com

Justice Ginsburg graduated in the top of her Columbia Law School class, after transferring from Harvard, where she was also in law review. However, upon graduating, she had difficulty finding employment. She clerked for Justice Edmund Louis Palmieri, who preferred clerks from Columbia. She later learned that a Dean at Columbia pressured Justice Palmieri to hire her, threatening to dissuade Columbia students from clerking with him. She subsequently went on to do gender rights work for the ACLU and taught at Rutgers Law School before her D.C. District Court judgeship and her current Supreme Court tenure.

She hid her pregnancy to avoid discrimination during her professorship. She shared that she had three strikes against her: (1) that she was a woman, (2) that she was Jewish when Jewish attorneys were not accepted, and (3) that she was a mother. She explained that being a mother was her biggest perceived problem; she would be distracted should something happen to her children.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the Chicago Bar Association event.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the Chicago Bar Association event.

Hearing Justice Ginsburg’s experiences with discrimination resonated with me and my struggles to find employment. The combination of having a disability, being Korean American, and a woman adversely affects my employability. Although people with disabilities have been graduating from law schools for some time, I still notice that a substantial number of attorneys with disabilities are unemployed. I am not sure how much of this is because of the economic recession increasing unemployment for all attorneys, but I do suspect that employment discrimination is at play. Most of my friends with disabilities from college are unemployed or underemployed.

Perhaps disability rights are not as evolved as gender rights. I heard that disability rights seems to stem from charity, instead of social justice rights, which is problematic in receiving these rights that are not considered to be on par with other rights. Perhaps to some degree, gender rights are not seen as relevant or on par with other rights as well.

Justice Ginsburg attended law school in the 50’s, soon after law schools starting admitting women, and there were a handful of women in her class. I graduated in 2008 and there were less than a handful of students with visible disabilities and students who were out about their hidden disabilities in my class, which had more female students than male. I realize gender discrimination still exists; my friend was fired right before her maternity leave.

Ginsburg was one of nine women in her Harvard Law School class. This picture of Ginsburg in law school is from this online article.

One major reason I chose to attend the law school that I attended (besides its Civil Rights Clinic) was because there were other students with disabilities. I was alarmed to find inadequate university disability services and lack of accessible housing. I constantly had to advocate for myself, which diminished my time for my studies. I had a theory that law school has a disparate impact on students with disabilities, since there are extra considerations for students with disabilities, in addition to being inundated with a new system of learning, called the dreaded Socratic Method. However, people like Justice Ginsburg poke holes to this theory, succeeding in law school while taking care of a child and hospitalized husband. Of course, I am not suggesting that I am any way near Ginsburg’s Harvard law review level; not many attorneys are. We also don’t all have Columbia Dean championing our causes.

Another student with a disability sued our law school for lack of accessibility. I’m not sure how much of the improved accessibility in the new addition and remodeled law school building was because of this law suit or my efforts promoting awareness with other students with disabilities through our Law and Disability Society events. The law school administration was initially reluctant to put in a bigger elevator in the addition, but there is now a spacious new elevator. An administrator justified the lack of accessibility in the old building that hadn’t been remodeled when I attended, from what seemed to be its inception in the 60’s, saying that they did not know that there would be students with disabilities. However, I found evidence to the contrary; a picture of one of the first graduating classes had a student with a disability in cap and gown. Of course he was a white male student, but a student with a disability nonetheless.

A law school professor I respect (particularly since she graduated from my law school, which is elitist in primarily hiring professors from Ivy League law schools) called me a trail blazer. I said that I wasn’t because I chose to attend this law school with other students with disabilities, as opposed to a Chicago school that tried almost successfully to woo me as its first student with a significant disability. Although this law professor never mentioned it, it is possible that she too faced gender discrimination as she attended law school in the 70’s, two decades after Justice Ginsburg. She did discourage me from going into personal injury litigation (Torts was my favorite class), saying that it was a Boys’ Club when she practiced.

Perhaps I was wrong about having to be first to be a trail blazer. Perhaps people who widen and improve the trails that have already been blazed can also be trail blazers. Just as Justice Ginsburg looks forward to the day when all nine Supreme Court justices are women, I look forward to the day when there will be our first Supreme Court justice with a disability, leading to more justices with disabilities. If she is a woman, that would be even better. Perhaps then, the ADA can have some bite and we can fight disability discrimination more effectively.