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July 02, 2020

Carol Steinberg: The ADA Has Kept Us Going, But More Must Be Done to Make Us Feel Welcome in Court

I became a lawyer in 1980, 10 years before the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed. I probably didn’t notice when George W. Bush signed that momentous bill into law in 1990. At the time, I was preoccupied with building my career as a trial lawyer and figuring out how to balance work and home as I also raised two daughters. And I had no disability then that I knew of.

Now when I see a video of Bush Sr. at that signing ceremony on the White House lawn in 1990, I get teary-eyed.

In 1995, I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. I kept trying cases, first depending on courtroom chairs to keep my balance, and then using a cane so I wouldn’t fall in front of the jury. My need for a wheelchair in 2004 did call my career into question. I wasn’t sure I still belonged in this profession. But with the encouragement of my husband and law partner, I’ve been zipping around courtrooms in my motorized chair ever since, trying to convince judges and juries of the righteousness of my cause.

And the ADA has  helped keep me going. Because of its mandate of equality for people with disabilities, I know I have the right to keep doing the work I love to do. Its “reasonable accommodations” requirements mean I have the right to ask for what I need in order to do that work. The accessibility requirements under Title II mean I can usually move around courts  freely. The change of attitudes because of the ADA, means that when clients, opposing counsel or judges see me in my wheelchair, they don’t flinch—outwardly.

Most importantly, because of the ADA, I have become an activist—knowing that those in power must listen when I raise my voice. Activism is the best medicine. But raising my voice, I must say: more should be done to ensure that the legal world truly embraces lawyers with disabilities.

I have often felt unwelcome because of barriers in courtrooms and the actions of some judges. When a judge’s bench was high, there was no ramp leading to it, and the judge didn’t come down to my level, I thought I was in the wrong business. I couldn’t be well heard during side bars. Opposing counsel, who could be, had a distinct advantage. 

I doubted my ability to do this job when jurors said they really couldn’t hear me after a trial. I realized that the courtroom microphones were only recording and did not amplify my voice.

I have felt locked out when trying to enter a courtroom that has an automatic door opener that has never been made operable despite entreaties. Because the door leaves were narrow,  I made an embarrassing ruckus when I struggled to get in.

Under the ADA, new courthouses are required to be accessible but this is a matter of interpretation. Ramps to the bench, better miking, automatic door openers, etc. are discretionary. In a recent accessible design competition, two courtrooms were submitted--one with access to the bench, witness stand and jury box and the other without. Both courtrooms meet ADA standards.

 I have also felt ostracized by some judges’ attitudes. Frequently, I’m mistaken for a client and told to leave the attorneys’ section. Some judges come down from the bench to my level but some do not, leaving me excluded from side-bar conferences. Judges have embarrassed me by announcing my disability to the jury.

The ADA has enabled me to do what I love to do for decades. But in furtherance of its mission, architects should learn to design courtrooms with lawyers with disabilities in mind; judges should be taught how to deal with disabled lawyers that come before them.

Change probably won’t happen until there are more of us. We have to make clear that we are in the courtroom to stay.

Carol Steinberg, Esq.

Attorney, Disability Activist, Accessibility Consultant, Writer & Speaker