Earlier this year, President Biden nominated his first judicial nominee who has a disclosed disability, Jamal N. Whitehead. Whitehead is a litigator in Seattle. He also uses a prosthetic leg. Although 26 percent of the United States’ population has some type of disability, the number of legal professionals with disabilities, including judges, is much lower. There are many reasons for low numbers of disabled judges, including implicit and explicit bias, pipeline issues, stigma associated with having and disclosing a disability, and an overall lack of data. Indeed, people with disabilities are sometimes termed “the forgotten minority,” despite being the nation’s largest minority. Fortunately, more organizations are beginning to recognize disability as an integral part of the diversity, equity, and inclusion movement. This article discusses why disability diversity is important in the judiciary and how disability diversity is currently tracked (if at all), and it provides the first-ever attempt at publishing a list of judges with disabilities.
A judiciary that reflects its population is an important goal, and disability is part of our nation’s populace. Among the sixty-one million adults who have some type of disability in the United States, disabilities are wide-ranging. Although the typical symbol for disability is a person in a wheelchair, disabilities can be visible or invisible. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines disability as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity. Unfortunately, in our inaccessible society, disability can have a detrimental effect on an individual’s health, social status, employment, and living situation.
Judges have an important role in deciding cases based on disability-related laws. They interpret the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1990 (IDEA), the Affordable Care Act, disability benefits laws such as Social Security Disability Insurance, and state laws related to disability. The millions of adults living with disabilities are therefore dependent on a judiciary in which only a small percentage of judges may have a lived understanding of disability.