How And Why I Became An ADA Advocate For People With Disabilities In The Courts And Colleges

by Karen Winner, Esq. and Adjunct at John Jay College

At age 47 I entered law school. This decision was the natural outgrowth of my muckraking career as a journalist and in public service, and my having initiated new laws in New York to better protect the public from financial abuse by lawyers. I was a “2L” (in my second year) at the City University of New York School of Law when my law studies literally came to a crashing halt in an instant after I was hit head-on in a car accident. For the next year, I recuperated in the hospital and rehab, learning to walk again. I went from the study of law books to learning patience and practicing hopefulness.

By the time I returned to law school to graduate, I could awkwardly put one foot in front of the other. But when it came to the results of taking the bar exam in order to obtain my law license, I was 4 points shy of passing. Although my score on the divorce essay was the highest ever recorded, according to one bar examiner, I didn’t finish the other essays on time. The essay tests required writing in long-hand and I knew I wasn’t writing fast enough but I didn’t know why I couldn’t. I felt so defeated. It was not until later when a lawyer-friend witnessed my problem taking notes that the reason for my hampered handwriting soon became apparent. The culprit slowing me down was an undiagnosed fracture of my finger from the earlier car accident. I’d been so focused on recovering from my leg injuries that the hand injury had gone undetected.  My lawyer-friend told me about the ADA— Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (as amended). The ADA is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including jobs, schools, transportation, and all public and private places that are open to the general public. I learned that under the ADA, people with disabilities are entitled to special accommodations, in my case, a computer.  I had another chance and one after that, to retake the exam. With my lap-top (and a tutor) I easily passed. But my experience and the value of the ADA was not lost on me.

After I received my law license and entered private practice, I obtained a certificate as an ADAAA disability advocate from the nation’s top ADA educator and author, Dr. Karin Huffer. She found that using the ADA to obtain accommodations for litigants results in fair and equal access to the judicial system by leveling the playing field. Dr. Huffer now offers this special training through an on-line program here at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

I’ve since incorporated the power of the ADA into my law practice, and have obtained accommodations for a number of my clients, based on their particular disabilities. In one case, I obtained accommodations for a client who has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). A person with this disorder may have trouble processing oral communication because of difficulty maintaining focus and concentration. The accommodation she was granted entitled her to receive and review any settlement agreements in writing first, instead of being asked by a judge to agree on the spot to orally communicated terms stated out loud only and not available to be viewed in writing.  (While it is not advisable that anyone agree to an orally communicated settlement, the risk is heightened for a litigant with a communication disorder.)

The ADA is not only helping litigants in court, but this federal law has given hope to college students who are functionally disabled, to fulfill their college educations by providing needed accommodations. As in the courts, accommodations in college are granted on a case-by-case basis.

The ADA covers both public and private universities; Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504) covers federally funded programs and services; and the Fair Housing Act (FHA) covers student housing and dormitories. All three laws may apply to student housing, according to the ADA National Network.

The student’s disability may be physical or invisible. For example, for a student who functions daily in a wheelchair, the ADA requires the college to remove architectural barriers. If stairs hinder the student from attending class, the university would be required to provide a ramp to the classroom. If such an accommodation presents a hardship to the college, then alternatively the college would grant an accommodation that enables the student to participate in class, such as relocating the student to an accessible building.  The ADA also recognizes invisible disabilities, such as Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD). In this case, the ADA removes communication barriers. If a student is frequently overcome by anxiety, and unable to communicate properly due to severe stress, the accommodation may grant the student an assistance animal to provide emotional support with the support of the animal. The student can get back to being able to communicate with their peers.

As I have learned through my own experience, and have seen in my law career, by availing one’s rights under the ADA, a student’s disability does not have to get in the way of their educational goals.  The ADA is a powerful law and enables all students to keep their eye on the horizon: graduation.

Karen Winner is an Adjunct teaching Business Law and Financial Fraud in Divorce, at John Jay College. She is also author of the groundbreaking book, Divorced From Justice: The Abuse of Women and Children by Divorce Lawyers and Judges (ReganBooks/Harper Collins, 1996).

For more about her work see AttorneyWinner.com. For more about Dr. Karin Huffer’s program, John Jay On-line Advocacy Program, at John Jay College, see https://equalaccessadvocates.com

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