THE LIMITS OF LAW: Eliminating Discrimination
These are not merely the stories of a harried traveler. They are
the experiences that people with disabilities face every day. Today,
only bigots believe that a person’s skin color, ethnicity or gender
affects the person’s ability to perform a job. But people—even well-educated people—who have never met or have never been around
a person with a disability wonder whether a person who is blind or
deaf or in a wheelchair can perform a job with that disability.
Of course, sometimes those concerns are justified—for example,
because my cerebral palsy makes my muscle movements occasionally spasmodic, no one would want me to do brain surgery! But most
of the time, concerns are entirely unjustified. Most people with disabilities can perform jobs with minimal accommodations.
When I applied for the position in the Criminal Appeals Section
at the Attorney General’s Office, the Chief Counsel at the time—
who had no experience with a person with a disability—wondered
privately how I physically wrote a brief, and he asked me, “How do
you write briefs?” Because I had written without any difficulty on a
computer for years, even though computers still were not common
in government offices, it never occurred to me that he was concerned about how I could physically perform the job. Wanting to
impress him, I blithely answered, “Quite well!” He told me years
later that he hired me because I gave him that answer.
Despite the physical challenges and the attitudes of others, many
lawyers with disabilities have done well. Using a wheelchair cer-
tainly has not prevented several lawyers from being appointed as
judges in the Superior Court, the Court of Appeals, and even the
Arizona Supreme Court, as recently retired Justice Michael Ryan
will attest. Several lawyers with disabilities have thriving practices.
Although I have had the occasional bump along the way, my
cerebral palsy has not prevented me from arguing more than 70
cases before the Arizona Court of Appeals, the Arizona Supreme
Court, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, and even the United
States Supreme Court. It did not prevent me from being named the
Chief Counsel of the Criminal Appeals Section at the Attorney
General’s Office or, when I left there, being named the Deputy
Appellate Chief at the United States Attorney’s Office. Several
lawyers with disabilities have indeed succeeded, many quietly and
without drawing attention to their disabilities.
But the success of some does not mean that barriers no longer
exist. Despite the ADA, employment for persons with disabilities—
and lawyers with disabilities—is a difficult problem, as demonstrat-
ed by the four-percentage-point gap in the unemployment rate
between the disabled and the nondisabled. New laws, or more com-
prehensive laws, will not remove the attitudinal barriers.
REMOVING REAL BARRIERS
The State Bar of Arizona was one of the first bar associations in the
country to acknowledge that the ADA did not solve all the prob-
lems facing persons with disabilities. Its leaders recognized that per-
sons with disabilities continued to have particular difficulties in
becoming lawyers and in succeeding in the legal profession. In
2001, the Bar created a Task Force on Persons with Disabilities in
the Legal Profession—today a full-fledged Bar Committee—
which brought together lawyers with disabilities to address the
problems facing persons with disabilities in entering into and
succeeding in the legal profession. The committee has worked
to raise the visibility of lawyers with disabilities and to provide
mentoring opportunities to law students and new lawyers with
One of the committee’s successes has been the Courthouse
Survey—a survey of state, county and city courthouses across
Arizona to see how accessible they were for lawyers and other
people with disabilities. Some courthouses were very accessible;
some had work to do. The survey brought attention to the physical barriers that lawyers with disabilities faced just trying to do
The federal government also has recognized that the ADA is
not the sole answer in addressing the problems facing persons
with disabilities. In July 2010, President Barack Obama signed
an Executive Order requiring federal agencies to adopt policies
and strategies that encourage the hiring of persons with disabilities, with a goal of hiring 100,000 persons with disabilities in
the next five years. 2 Though that may seem like a large number,
it is not when you consider that currently 737,000 persons with
disabilities are seeking employment. 3
The high rate of unemployment of persons with disabilities
and the fact that persons with disabilities comprise only 3. 7 percent of the national work force4 demonstrate the underlying reason for the attitudes that persons with disabilities face: unfamiliarity. People have certain attitudes about persons with disabilities because they do not interact daily with them; they do not see
them in the community; they do not work with them. If they
interacted with persons with disabilities, they would see that
those people are just as smart—and in some cases, just as
dumb—as they are.
The old adage is that familiarity breeds contempt. But I
think, at least in this instance, that familiarity would breed
Laws cannot change attitudes. Only people can do that.
Laws, after all, have limits. AZ AT
1. U.S. Department of Labor, Office of Disability Employment
Policy, available at www.dol.gov/odep/ (last visited Feb. 13,
2. See www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/executive-order-increasing-federal-employment-individuals-with-disabilities (last
visited Feb. 13, 2011).
3. U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, available
at www.bls.gov/news.release/empsit.t06.htm (last visited Feb.
4. Although the total employed labor force in the United States is
nearly 147 million, only 5. 4 million of that number are persons
with disabilities. Id.