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Vol. 42, No. 3

Accessibility matters: Experts and lawyers with disabilities help bars find, eliminate barriers

by Robert J. Derocher

Legally blind since the age of 12, Chicago attorney Patti Gregory-Chang has encountered her fair share of ignorance and patronization regarding her disability.

The one place where she didn’t expect that experience?

A bar association meeting.

“I came in to register, and the woman at the desk said, ‘Oh, honey, this is the bar association. Where are you trying to go?’ says Gregory-Chang, a lawyer for three decades. “I’m sure she meant well, but the message she sent was not good, it was not welcoming.”

As a member of the Disability Law Committee of the Illinois State Bar Association, Gregory-Chang has long advocated for lawyers with disabilities, educating fellow bar members—and staff—on how to better meet their needs, as well of those of the public. One part of that role, she says, is to serve as a bit of a bar gadfly.

“The bar is improving, but I’ve been pestering them for a while,” she adds.

While sometimes frank and even uncomfortable, that direct dialogue is critical to creating more accessible associations, according to disability rights advocates and bar leaders. Although such discussions—both inside and outside the bar—can help address short-term accessibility challenges, they say, it also has long-term implications. Increasingly longer life spans and later retirement ages may make it more likely that bar associations will see more members facing disabilities, with hearing and vision loss and decreased mobility and cognitive abilities being the most prevalent.

Knowing where accessibility challenges lie and addressing them immediately, many experts say, will make bars of any size more available and welcoming to all members—both now and in the years ahead.

Making the bar accessible for all

At the heart of accessibility for bar associations and any organization is the anti-discriminatory Americans with Disabilities Act. The 1990 civil rights law imposes legal requirements for such associations to provide accessibility for people with disabilities to a wide range of activities, from meeting places to learning and licensing events such as continuing legal education.

“There are more and more people with disabilities entering the profession. They want full access to the bar and certain events—and they should get it,” says Robert Gonzales, chair of the ABA Commission on Disability Rights. Gonzales is also a past president of the Bar Association of Baltimore City, the Maryland State Bar Association, and the National Conference of Bar Presidents.

Accessibility is a key component not only of planning for Commission events and activities, according to Gonzales, but for all ABA events. “If it’s not accessible for one, it’s not accessible for all,” he says. The place where planning for many ABA events and activities begins, Gonzales notes, is the Commission’s planning toolkit.

Accessibility, he adds, extends far beyond a ramp for wheelchair-bound lawyers. Sign language and captioning for the hearing impaired, Braille and speech-synthesizing screen readers for the visually impaired, and materials and assistance for people with speech and cognitive disabilities are just some of the accessibility accommodations increasingly made for bar members.

“I think being fully ADA compliant involves lesser known disabilities such as cognitive disabilities,” agrees Doug Knapp, director of electronic communications for the ISBA. “We have focused on making our website, and our vendors’ websites, accessible to screen readers, as well as being able to navigate by keyboard, because we know of members who need these functions.”

A key player in Knapp’s efforts: Gregory-Chang, also a former attorney for the city of Chicago and director of outreach for National Federation of the Blind, where she previously served on the executive board. Gregory-Chang has served as a sounding board and tester for the bar’s website efforts.

“She has given me a huge appreciation for how difficult it is. It really requires a different kind of skill set.  You gain an appreciation of what blind people have to go through,” Knapp says. “The testing on [screen readers] can be brutal.”

Barriers often hide in plain sight

While Gregory-Chang has appreciated the opportunity to help Knapp, she says bar associations can—and should—do more to improve accessibility. Offering a DVD in place of a CLE event, for example, is not the same, she says.

“If you really want to welcome people with disabilities, you actually need to listen to them. Welcome disabled attorneys to talk to your staff. Maybe elevate some of these disability and diversity committees to practice groups or section councils,” Gregory-Chang advises. “Diversity is more than race and gender.”

Leaders of the Monroe County (N.Y.) Bar Association were listening when members complained about accessibility shortcomings two years ago, says Kevin Ryan, the bar’s executive director. What followed was a comprehensive anti-discrimination policy that soon led to a problem quite close to home, as bar leaders realized that they weren’t in conformance with that policy: A set of men’s and women’s restrooms in the bar’s offices were not accessible. The bar’s board approved a $20,000 outlay to create two unisex restrooms, with one of those fully accessible. “Now, we’re following our own policy,” Ryan notes.

The new policy has also been helpful in addressing issues that the bar thought it had addressed previously, according to Ryan. For example, a table that could accommodate wheelchairs had been set aside in a meeting room. The bar consulted with a local disability rights organization and discovered that it was unintentionally segregating members using wheelchairs. The bar also obtained chairs on wheels that allow greater flexibility in seating people with disabilities.

The consultant from the disability rights organization continues to assist the bar, Ryan adds. “She’s been able to get us resources, and she helped us develop a checklist [for bar-sponsored events]. It’s been helpful to reach out to someone in the community who is aware of how these things should be done. She’s been a big help.”

The checklist led to a shakeup in bar events, with some traditional bar event venues being dropped because of lack of accessibility. And a planned change in the bar’s main reception area will lead to a new desk that is an appropriate height for people with disabilities.

“We now see things that we didn’t once see,” Ryan says.

‘An increasingly hot topic’

One thing bar associations are likely to continue seeing is an increase in aging bar members with disabilities, says Pamela Hoopes, legal director of the Disability Law Center at Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, which is a state-designated protection agency for the ADA. In December 2017, Hoopes facilitated a webinar for the National Association of Bar Executives, focused on disability and accessibility.

“Lawyers tend to retire later than a lot of other professionals, and there are challenges that come with that,” she explains. “It will be an increasingly hot topic.”

One task that Hoopes recommends for bar associations to start in their quest to be ADA compliant—or even better than compliant—is to carry out a self-audit. Each state has an agency similar to the MMLA that can provide resources to assist in a self-audit and subsequent compliance efforts.

“We try to encourage proactive steps,” Hoopes says. “It’s not just about compliance. It’s really about protecting civil rights.”

She also encourages bars to either establish disability rights committees or to emphasize the need to address such issues through access-to-justice or diversity committees, as well as working with the state and local judiciary to carry out joint efforts to improve accessibility in the courts.

On the national level, Gonzales says the ABA is increasing efforts to foster technological advancements that will lead to improved accessibility for lawyers and everyone accessing the legal profession. Part of that effort, he adds, is encouraging some of the nation’s top law firms to develop comprehensive accessibility plans.

While much still needs to be done, Gregory-Chang says, the increasing efforts by law firms, bar associations, and the courts to improve accessibility are being noticed by people with disabilities—particularly those who have worked to hide their disabilities over the years, such as the hard of hearing and people with epilepsy and mental health issues.

“You really have to train your staff, and work to make [bar associations] welcoming, inclusive environments,” she says. “We want equal access. We want to participate fully.”

Additional resources

Multiple resources are available to help bar associations evaluate their accessibility needs and to make improvements. They include: