General Practice, Solo & Small Firm Division

Volume 15, Number 3
July/August 1999

The ABA Commission on Mental and Physical Disability Law


In 1973, under the leadership of then-ABA President Chesterfield Smith, the ABA created the Commission on the Mentally Disabled. The Commission’s founding chair was Jerome J. Shestack, who eventually went on to become president of the ABA. Other members included such luminaries as Judge David L. Bazelon and McNeil Smith, past chair of the ABA Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities. Its current chair is James Carr, Assistant Attorney General from Colorado, a member of the ABA House of Delegates, and secretary of the ABA Section on Tort and Insurance Practice.

The Commission’s initial mission was to promote the humane treatment of people with mental disabilities and safeguard their basic rights. In 1991, just after the landmark passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the ABA Board of Governors, at the Commission’s request, changed its name to the Commission on Mental and Physical Disability Law. Its new mission is to (1) fulfill the ABA’s commitment to justice and the rule of law for persons with mental and physical disabilities, and (2) open the legal profession to lawyers with disabilities.

The ABA’s commitment to lawyers with disabilities was further expanded at the 1999 Midyear Meeting in Los Angeles. The House of Delegates overwhelmingly passed a resolution to amend ABA Goal IX "to promote the full and equal participation in the legal profession" of lawyers with disabilities, as well as minorities and women. The resolution was sponsored by the Commission, the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession, the ABA Commission on Minorities in the Profession, the ABA Commission on Legal Problems of the Elderly, and the ABA Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities. The Commission intends to use this resolution to (1) facilitate the appointment of more lawyers with disabilities into leadership positions within the ABA, and (2) encourage those lawyers with disabilities, who are not members, to join the association.

The Commission provides legal information and resources to lawyers and disability professionals who represent or serve persons with disabilities. The Commission also offers support for the professional needs of lawyers with disabilities and lawyers who practice disability law.

Since 1976, the Commission has published the Mental and Physical Disability Law Reporter, the leading periodical in the disability law field. Each bimonthly issue includes summaries of more than 300 reported and unreported case decisions and updates of significant federal and state legislation, bylined articles, and expert commentary. The Reporter is the foundation for the Commission’s Disability Law Center, which also provides:

• Technical assistance and referrals to lawyers, disability professionals and the public.

• Fee-based legal research and training.

• Publications on mental and physical disability law, including the ADA.

• On-line disability law information on the ABA’s website ( and WESTLAW (type dbMPHYDLR at the directory prompt).

• A directory of more than 3,000 lawyers, law firms, and legal organizations that practice disability law.

• A study of ADA Title I decisions indicating that employees win only 10 percent of the court actions against employers.

• A Benchbook on Psychiatric and Psychological Evidence and Testimony (September 1998).

The Commission’s Subcommittee on Lawyers with Disabilities works with ABA entities to improve access to the association and its publications, programs, and benefits for lawyers with disabilities. Chaired by Gail Kaplan, a solo practitioner from Santa Monica, California, the subcommittee has created a database of the names of lawyers with disabilities and lawyers who practice disability law, which now includes more than 5,000 names; established a website for disability lawyers, including a List Serve discussion group; and begun to establish a mentoring program for law students and young lawyers with disabilities.

In June 1998, the Commission and then-ABA President Jerome J. Shestack sponsored a three-day national disability law and policy conference in Washington, D.C., featuring then-ABA President-Elect Phillip S. Anderson and former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh. Based on that conference, the Commission will publish an agenda for disability law in the next century.

To obtain more information about the Commission and its activities, a free catalog of products and services, or a brochure on the Mental and Physical Disability Law Reporter, contact the ABA Commission on Mental and Physical Disability Law, 740 15th Street, NW, 9th Floor, Washington, DC 20005-1022; phone 202/662-1581; TTY 202/662-1012; fax 202/662-1032.

John Parry, J.D., has been editor-in-chief of the Mental and Physical Disability Law Reporter since 1979 and Director of the Commission on Mental and Physical Disability Law since 1980. In 1987, he received the Manfred S. Guttmacher Award from the American Psychiatric Association and the American Academy of Psychiatry and Law for his contributions to law and psychiatry.

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