Caner Demirayak is a New York-based attorney.
What is your disability? How does it affect you?
At age 10, I was diagnosed with Becker’s Muscular Dystrophy because I was continuously falling down while walking. Because Becker’s progressively weakens muscles, my difficulty walking worsened. At the age of 17, I fractured my ankle, and I was unable to recover and could no longer stand or walk. As such, I began using a motorized wheelchair.
What accommodations do you use in the workplace? Have you encountered any obstacles or challenges from your employers, colleagues, or schools in obtaining accommodations?
I have requested accommodations including raised desks that allow space for my wheelchair, as well as automatic door openers and an office located in close proximity to the exit and entrance doors. Where driving my own modified vehicle with hand controls would not be feasible, I also was permitted to use an accessible taxi vehicle for travel to and from court despite the higher expense. In a past job, difficulties arose due to the inaccessibility of the Courts in the City of New York. The court system has refused to make reasonable accommodations addressing the lack of access to courtrooms and other facilities, many of which are only accessible by stairs or are not wide enough to fit a standard-sized motorized wheelchair.
While I was in college, I was always afforded accommodations including a larger dorm room and accessible restrooms. However, my law school did not have an accessible bathroom on the main floor of classrooms, which caused many problems.
Do you disclose your disability to employers or colleagues? Why or why not?
I do not feel that a mobility disability should be disclosed on a job application as it may cause employers to easily rule you out as a potential employee. When appearing in person after presenting so well on paper, the employer may be impressed and strongly consider you for a position. Once I appear for an interview in my wheelchair, the employer immediately is aware of my disability. This can, however, sometimes backfire, for example when a hiring partner realizes that the potential employee is disabled, cuts the interview short, and never follows up.
Why did you decide to become a lawyer? Did your disability have an impact on your decision?
In 2009, while I was in college, I spent a full semester in Washington, D.C., working with a U.S. Senator and conducting an investigation on the lobbying industry. After interviewing four partners of lobbying firms anonymously and gaining firsthand information on the ability of lawyers and lobbyists to alter policy and push for change, I began to feel that the legal and/or lobbying industry was right for me. I initially set out to become a lawyer focused on criminal law, but despite interviewing with several prosecution offices and criminal defense associations, I was not offered a position. Accordingly, I practiced civil defense work until I opened my own practice in July 2020.
What type of legal work do you do, and how did you decide on a field?
My law practice consists of plaintiff’s-side personal injury matters, medical malpractice, products liability, civil rights, general civil litigation, and criminal defense. I feel that injury victims need me as an advocate who truly cares and will turn over every stone to get them justice and compensation. My long-term goal is to pursue my interest as a criminal defense attorney. It takes time to build expertise in this area, as well as a reputation. I also want to focus on medical malpractice. These two areas of law are where people are most in need of justice. Until then, I intend to try to grow my law firm.
What advice would you give to fellow disabled lawyers or law students?
Always keep at the forefront of your mind that, regardless of your disability, you are capable of doing everything that is required of a law student and lawyer. There is power in positive thinking. You may feel frustrated and experience difficulties. Also, remember that you are entitled to accommodations that allow you to be the best lawyer and advocate you can be.
How do you think the legal profession is doing in creating a diverse and inclusive environment for disabled persons? What could be improved?
The legal profession is not doing enough to ensure that disabled persons are included in the profession, or that non-lawyers are accommodated in legal proceedings. Too many court systems across the United States do not comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act’s (ADA) accessibility requirements. This discourages lawyers with mobility impairments from becoming litigators and deters disabled persons from pursuing their legal rights. Furthermore, legal employers need to hire more disabled persons, and courts need to remove architectural barriers. There is a true lack of inclusion.
In 2017, you sued New York City regarding courthouse access, and the Supreme Court even got involved in 2019. What led to filing the suit, and what are your goals for the litigation?
In August 2017, I wanted to observe a jury trial, but learned that the courtroom was located on a mezzanine level of the courthouse that could only be accessed by stairs. Despite the Judge being notified of the problem, she began the trial without me, and not a single employee in the courthouse offered an accommodation.
That experience led me to file a complaint detailing each and every time I was denied access to a courtroom, going back to 2015. My goal was to make sure that no person with a physical disability was ever denied access again. In 2018, the litigation was expanded to include several other inaccessible court facilities in New York City. For example, the wheelchair lift for the Manhattan Supreme Court was broken, forcing me to conduct a court conference outside on the busy and noisy city sidewalk. To date the litigation has resulted in one consent injunction requiring the removal of architectural barriers at one courthouse, an agreement to not violate the Americans with Disabilities Act in the future, and damages.
What do you think needs to be done to make the legal world more accessible for disabled legal professionals?
All court facilities must be fully accessible to, and usable by, persons with disabilities. Until this time a best practices guide should be created for all court systems to use in accommodating and providing equal access to disabled legal professionals. Currently, all court systems handle disabled people differently, and there should be a uniform process that all courts should adhere to, similar to the United States Access Board’s 2006 report on building accessible courthouses and judicial facilities.