January 01, 2009

January 2009: Claudia L. Gordon, Esq.

Foreign-born deaf lawyer uses opportunity in America to help those with disabilities during emergencies.

Despite various obstacles in America, individuals with disabilities comparatively have better opportunities here than in most other countries. Claudia L. Gordon, Esq. grew up in Jamaica, and when she went deaf at the age of eight, she was pulled from school because it was believed that her disability prevented her from learning. Shortly thereafter, Claudia’s mother brought her to the United States in search of opportunities for her daughter.

Claudia remembers how she was treated in Jamaica after going deaf. “I dealt with discrimination and oppression on a daily basis. People believed I was unable to learn and succeed simply because I could not hear,” she recalls, “these experiences convinced me that I wanted to be a vehicle for change.” Claudia decided on law school to help her pursue such change, attending American University, Washington College of Law to study disability rights law and policy. After law school, she was a staff attorney for the National Association of the Deaf Law and Advocacy Center and a consulting attorney with the National Council on Disability.

Currently, Claudia is a Senior Policy Advisor for the Department of Homeland Security, Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. She provides advice and technical assistance to the leadership and components of DHS that are geared towards implementation and enforcement of disability civil rights laws, regulations, and Executive Orders. Most of her work involves the implementation of the executive order for Individuals with Disabilities in Emergency Preparedness, which makes sure federal agencies work together to ensure that emergency preparedness plans are inclusive of the needs and expertise of those with disabilities.

At DHS Claudia is able to address misconceptions people have about those with disabilities, some of them similar to the stereotypes and erroneous beliefs she faced in Jamaica. Now she is able to correct these misperceptions, and ensure that the needs of the disability community are considered when government entities create their emergency preparedness plans. Progress has been made due to a combination of an increase of concern for safety in a post-9/11 world and the success of the disability rights movement; however, there are still some gaps that need to be filled. “One problem we still find is that those who create emergency preparedness plans need to realize that the disability community is not homogeneous. A ‘one-size-fits-all’ emergency preparedness and response approach for people with disabilities does not take into account that, for example, that those who are deaf have one set of needs when a catastrophe strikes, while those with mobility impairments have a whole other set of needs,” Gordon stated, “this misperception can be corrected by having planners understand that you can’t indentify someone as simply ‘having a disability.’ You need to go beyond their essence, look at the functional limitations their disability creates, and then make a plan to address those practical limitations.”

For those with disabilities, Claudia offers the following emergency preparedness advice: “Make sure you and your family are prepared. Your government can only do so much, so it is important to make sure you have a personalized plan and know how to initially proceed during an emergency. It would also be helpful to create a network of support in your community. Teaming up with others who have similar disabilities and being vocal about your needs are necessary in order to be properly prepared.”