General Practice, Solo & Small Firm DivisionMagazine

Volume 15, Number 3
July/August 1999

Respect: The Key to Working with Mentally Disabled Clients


No person is more or less worthy of your respect and advocacy as a lawyer. As my father always told me, "Everyone gets up in the morning and puts their clothes on the same way." A client suffering from paranoid schizophrenia is entitled to my respect for her as a person at civil commitment hearing. She is entitled to make decisions as to how she wants her case handled. In one particular instance, I advocated for my client’s interests, lobbying for more community-based services to be put into place so that in the future the client would have been able to stay in her home.

I believe that lawyers have an obligation to represent those who cannot speak for themselves. The American Association of Disabled Persons (AADP; calls this "enablement." Our role as lawyers is to make it possible for all of our clients to have the means, opportunity, power, or authority to be heard. Those who are disabled deserve no less than our best efforts on their behalf.

For example, prior to a commitment hearing, travel to the hospital where your client has been placed. While you are there, review all hospital records, visit with the doctors and nurses, interview and listen to your client to determine what his needs may be in this situation, and then work to have his needs met. It is not enough to know the law when representing disabled clients. It is also a requirement, no matter how challenging, to understand the illness from which your client suffers. A skilled advocate will become educated in both the diseases and the laws.

Another example is in the representation of special education students. Special education students may not understand the significance of bringing a "play knife or gun" to school, but in the wake of the Littleton massacre, school boards may be very quick to expel a student for these actions. As her advocate, you must understand what disabilities your client brings to this situation. Expulsion may be a totally inappropriate reaction to a child who brings a "play knife or gun" to school. You may face resistance, though, because the school board, administration, teachers, parents, and other students may be afraid of the child’s "play knife or gun." Or perhaps a special education child became agitated or upset and started acting out, and no one knew how to calm him down. It is understandable that students and teachers might be afraid of that child. However, all students have the right to an education in the least restrictive environment.

One of my own children, who is a special needs child, was removed from school for having in his possession another student’s calculator. He had borrowed the calculator with permission but could not articulate this fact to the authorities. By the time I could assist, he had already been removed, with no due process, no hearing, no nothing.... Ask yourself, is this what you want for your son or daughter or client? It’s very analogous to a failure to read an alleged criminal his Miranda rights. No one wants the alleged criminal to go free because of a technicality, but what if you are the alleged criminal?

Respect, listening, and understanding—these are the challenges of representing a mentally disabled client. Are these clients deserving of anything less than our best advocacy for their interests?

Ann M. Zenk is a lawyer with Caldwell, Caldwell & Caldwell, P.L.C. She is a legal consultant with the Entrepreneurs with Disabilities Program for the State of Iowa (Vocational Rehabilitation and Veterans Affairs Groups).

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