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October 15, 2020

Lawyer Spotlight: Emily Seelenfreund

Attorney Emily Seelenfreund

Attorney Emily Seelenfreund

What is your disability? How does it affect you? 

I have Osteogenesis Imperfecta, a congenital disability that causes brittle bones and short stature. I use a manual wheelchair for mobility.

What accommodations do you use in the workplace? Have you encountered any obstacles or challenges from your employers, colleagues, or schools in obtaining accommodations?

In the way of accommodations, I used to try to get by with the bare minimum, wanting to prove to employers, colleagues, and institutions that I am not a burden. Then I realized that by refusing to advocate for accommodations, I was fostering an ableist attitude in myself and others by contributing to the false narrative that people with disabilities should play the role of superhero, and that those asking for accommodations are trying to game the system So each year I get better at asking for accommodations that, while not strictly essential, serve to create a more equitable working environment for me.

Small accommodations,- like asking for a lighter laptop, to work from home on snow days, for a footstool to prop my legs on, or for depositions to take place in a conference room with wider paths of travel - do not pose an undue burden, enable me to more fully participate in office life, and also pave the way for future employees to feel more comfortable asking for their own necessary accommodations.

Do you disclose your disability to employers or colleagues?  Why or why not? 

I have a visible disability so “passing” isn’t really an option. Disability justice is prominent on my resume and cover letter, in part because when I was routinely applying for internships and fellowships, I only wanted to work at organizations that were excited about having an employee with a disability who was passionate about disability rights.

Why did you decide to become a lawyer? Did your disability have an impact on your decision?

When I was a little kid, I wasn’t very mobile. I always had to be careful because moving too quickly, especially around other rambunctious kids, could easily cause a fracture. As a result, I learned to use my voice to effectively act as my legs. My mom always said that other kids could just walk over and get the cookie. I had to learn how to utilize my reasoning ability, logic, and speech to advocate for myself - whether for big or small things!  

As I got older, I came to really appreciate how persuasive speaking, and the law in its idyllic form, is an equalizer.  The idea that I, as a four-foot woman sitting down, could be on an equal playing field with the rest of society in a courtroom was inspiring. I learned more about how the law works in practice, I’ve come to see how it is all too often used as a weapon to oppress, particularly against people of color, as well as against those with disabilities. But I still believe in its ability at its core to empower communities and all forms of advocates.   

What type of legal work do you do, and how did you decide on a field?

I am a staff attorney at Disability Rights Advocates (DRA), a legal non-profit that litigates systemic class actions nationwide on behalf of people with all types of disabilities. I was born in 1990 - the same year the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed - so I’ve always been cognizant of the law’s ability to transform lives. Sometimes when I call a rental car company to request hand controls or a hotel to ask for a shower chair, I marvel at how the ADA makes so many things I value, particularly my independence, possible.

This first-hand experience with the power of civil rights law and the desire to continue the work of past generations that fought for my own rights led me to law school. My experiences in law school and interning with various disability rights organizations cemented my desire to work in disability advocacy. I realized that many disability lawyers did not identify as people with disabilities themselves, which seemed markedly different than civil rights lawyers advocating for other marginalized groups. I feel it’s important that people directly impacted by issues have a seat at the table to figure out the solution, which is why I am committed to working as a disability rights lawyer. As the saying goes, “nothing about us without us.”

What advice would you give to fellow lawyers or law students with disabilities?

You should feel empowered to ask for all the accommodations you need to be successful. In some ways the asking is a form of advocacy in itself, because every individual who secures accommodations for themselves makes the process that much easier for future lawyers and students with disabilities to secure the same.

Similarly, don’t be afraid to speak up and offer your perspective. Ableist language and opinions are rampant in caselaw; I’ll never forget sitting in Torts as a 1L discussing a case about how much a newly “wheelchair bound man” who had been injured should receive in damages. The court, and my professor, based part of the discussion on the idea that the man’s life was basically ruined forever, as if using a wheelchair were a fate worse in some ways than death. While (of course) the plaintiff in that case was entitled to recover for his injury, the discussion revealed narrow-minded views about the potential for people with disabilities to live fulfilling lives. As a new and insecure law student I kept quiet, but still wish I had spoken up that day to challenge that troubling and incorrect narrative.

How do you think the legal profession is doing in creating a diverse and inclusive environment for persons with disabilities? What could be improved?

 It’s ironic that a profession that should be rooted in impartiality and equity has such difficulty creating an accommodating, inclusive space for many groups, including people with disabilities. I think a lot of that is based on the legal profession’s rigidity about what constitutes an effective lawyer. You see that rigidity in the reluctance to grant accommodations for takers of the LSAT or the bar exam, even though aspects like logic games or strict time limits cannot fairly measure the advocacy skills of individuals who are blind or have learning disabilities.

I think it’s important for all lawyers to challenge what their idea of an effective advocate is, whether that means considering someone who’s sitting down for an oral argument instead of towering over a jury, or someone who reads cases by utilizing a screen-reader. We all need to challenge our misconception that there is a single mold for lawyers, and that everyone needs to try and fit themselves into that mold. This outdated views harms not just lawyers with disabilities, but everyone, because all of society benefits when diverse voices and perspectives are meaningfully included.

You’ve done a lot of work in getting New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) to make its facilities more accessible. Why is accessibility especially important in a place like New York City?

Access to efficient and affordable transportation is key for people with disabilities; the drafters of the ADA described it as the linchpin to societal integration. Access to employment, education, recreational opportunities, and healthcare all depend on a way of getting there. Yet in New York City, individuals with disabilities are effectively excluded from the city’s most popular and convenient form of transportation, as 75 percent of subway stations require stairs to access the train. There are stretches of 10 stations, and several miles, of inaccessible stations in a row. This rampant inaccessibility is especially ironic in a place like NYC, where few people own cars and most rely on the subway as their primary form of transportation.

Subway accessibility, or the lack thereof, impacts every aspect of the lives of New Yorkers with disabilities who need to pick up their kids from school, to attend work meetings, or merely find an affordable, accessible apartment. I moved this past January and finding an affordable, accessible apartment in close proximity to an accessible subway station was the equivalent of a needle in a haystack; the few accessible stations that exist are most often located in wealthier neighborhoods. It’s an extra burden that New Yorkers with disabilities must bear.

How have you approached the MTA reforms, and what success have you had?

One way we’ve approached these cases is with creativity. DRA has several active lawsuits against the MTA, but the case that challenges the systemic exclusion is filed not under the ADA, but under the New York City Human Rights Law. This is because to comply with the ADA, the MTA is only required to make 100 key stations accessible, as well as make stations accessible when conducting renovations. However, the MTA has ignored the renovations requirement and has done little beyond the required 100 station, dooming the system to remain frozen in a state of limited accessibility.

When we filed our city law claim, the MTA immediately filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that state law preempted its application. Our judge disagreed, holding that “there is no license by the MTA, by any other agency to discriminate against any individual by race, minority, ethnicity or disability.” In June 2020 the State Appellate Court affirmed this decision, and the case is now in active discovery.

DRA has also benefitted from activist demonstrations, media coverage and a growing public awareness of subway inequality, which have all complemented our legal efforts.

What impacts have you seen, or experienced yourself, from the COVID-19 pandemic on public accessibility? What has been easier, and what has been more difficult?

One potential positive for people with disabilities is the normalization of remote work. For many reasons (e.g., barriers to transportation, healthcare reasons, lack of accommodations in the workplace), daily commuting is often too burdensome for employees with disabilities. Now that many sectors have realized that employees can be just as efficient at home, hopefully this is an accommodation they will be less reluctant to offer to all employees (but especially those with disabilities) in the future.

One unfortunate byproduct is that in times of limited resources and competing priorities, people with disabilities often get pushed to the back of the pile or become an afterthought. You see that in voting, whereby there has been an impressive push to provide an unprecedented amount of absentee ballots, but little regard for making those ballots accessible for blind voters - though luckily, DRA just secured a preliminary injunction against the North Carolina State Board of Elections ordering them to make their Absentee Voting Program accessible by the November election. The MTA has also been hit hard by the pandemic and advocates fear that accessibility will be the first thing to be cut, though DRA will continue to fight to avoid disability issues being pushed aside.