Conrad is an attorney with Washington Civil and Disability Advocate.
What is your disability? How does it affect you as a lawyer?
I was diagnosed with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy at age three. I began exclusively using a power wheelchair for mobility starting at age ten and have been rolling along ever since. having a chronic physical disability certainly has made my life more complicated. Throughout my life, I have faced discrimination and barriers to inclusion, which has made me sensitive to and understanding of what many other marginalized groups face. At the same time, navigating a world that is not physically designed to be inclusive of people like me has given me finely tuned problem-solving skills, a constructive attitude, and allowed me to have greater empathy—all excellent traits for an effective attorney.
What accommodations do you use in the workplace? Have you encountered any obstacles or challenges from your employers, colleagues, or schools in obtaining accommodations?
Thanks to modern technology the accommodations I need to thrive in the workplace are relatively minimal. I use a combination of the stock on-screen keyboard that comes with Windows, as well as Dragon NaturallySpeaking, a speech-to-text program. As a nonprofit disability rights law firm, being able to sign legal documents electronically - through “S dash” or websites such as DocuSign - makes our office both accessible and inclusive for our clients. As for the physical space, I use a desk that is adjusted at an accessible height for me. Our office is as paperless as possible, which allows me to access everything I need either online or through accessible PDF documents.
Do you disclose your disability to employers or colleagues? Why or why not?
I don’t have that option. My disability is readily apparent the moment I roll through the door. Sadly, even in 2020 that first impression pushes me to the back of the applicant pool. Potential employers who were enthusiastic over email and phone become distant, reticent, and uncomfortable within minutes of the start of the interview. To counter these reactions, I try to find ways to address the elephant in the room and to defuse the awkwardness, with mixed success.
After facing discrimination on multiple occasions, I decided to “hire myself.” I began networking and learning everything I could about the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). I worked part-time on ADA cases, which turned into full-time as a solo practitioner. Ultimately, I started my own disability rights nonprofit law firm, Washington Civil & Disability Advocate (WACDA). After a little over three years since its creation, WACDA is thriving and making a significant positive impact through education, litigation, legislative advocacy, and resource referral. We have volunteer and internship programs and ambitious dreams of further expanding our reach across the state of Washington and beyond.
Why did you decide to become a lawyer? Did your disability have an impact on your decision?
From a young age, I wanted to be involved in policy and legislation. I faced blatant discrimination in high school, including not allowing me to take my service dog outside to relieve herself and controlling which accessible restroom I could use. Thanks to the ADA and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and with the assistance of local disability rights advocates, my parents and I reached an eleventh-hour mediation with the school district.
As I developed personally and professionally during my college years, I realized that I wanted to become an advocate for the disability community. This realization was reinforced by my summer internship with the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD) in Washington, DC. Working on Capitol Hill made me aware of the larger disability rights movement. I began to appreciate the impact community can have on people’s lives when we effectively work together. The disability advocates who championed the passage of the ADA, IDEA, and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 paved the way for my generation and those to come.
What type of legal work do you do, and how did you decide on a field?
At WACDA, we litigate disability rights cases in employment, housing, government services, places of public accommodation, and other areas. We focus on the lack of physical accessibility, and have begun to tackle effective communication, rights of service dog owners, and fair housing.
What advice would you give to fellow lawyers on law students with disabilities?
Take the time to know the student and don’t make assumptions about what they are capable of achieving. Also, there is no such thing as a “dumb” question; ask questions.
How do you think the legal profession is doing in creating a diverse and inclusive environment for persons with disabilities? What could be improved?
The legal profession is slowly beginning to recognize and appreciate that people with disabilities must be included in all diversity initiatives. I am especially encouraged to see that the American Bar Association has a Commission on Disability Rights (CDR). The Washington State Bar Association has always been highly supportive of disability efforts and initiatives, supporting the Washington Attorneys with Disabilities Association, for which I served as president for several years. As a young lawyer with a disability who practices disability rights law, the Disability Rights Bar Association (DRBA) is the organization that most supports my career. Connecting with the DRBA allowed me to become involved in the disability rights legal world and gave me the connections and tools to become a successful litigator.
Education and awareness are the most effective tools for combating ignorance and discrimination. I would love to see more law schools make concerted efforts to increase the representation of people with significant disabilities. Every law school should have at least one, if not more, disability law course and clinics. There also needs to be more disability rights continuing legal education for attorneys and judges across the country. The civil defense bar, in particular, could benefit from education on how to resolve ADA litigation in a respectful rather than ableist way. A spirit of humility and seeking to understand how to be accessible and inclusive for the entire community will go a long way.
Since you have mentored young people with disabilities similar to your own, what have you seen your mentees gain from the experience? Have you gained anything as a mentor as well?
Through Parent Project Muscular Dystrophy (PPMD) and the DO-IT program at the University of Washington, I have been privileged to see many of my mentees with my disability as well as countless other disabilities, gain personal ownership of their dreams and ambitions and not let others tell them what they can and can’t do.
I have also benefitted from being a mentor. The adage “it’s not what you know but who you know” is especially true in my life. My mentees have taught me about so many other professions and areas of knowledge that I would never been otherwise exposed to. They have become clients, fellow disability rights advocates, and volunteers and interns for my organization. We are disability rights changemakers. The success of one is a success for all.
You have also done work raising disability awareness and fundraising – what strategies have you found most effective?
The power of networking and relationship building are the most effective strategies. The majority of my disability awareness opportunities result from one connection leading to another and another. Other times the opportunities arise from regular conversations with other professionals, or me coming up with an idea and bringing it to fruition by leveraging my connections.
Like disability awareness, effective fundraising is all about networking and relationship building. Impress one supporter and/or donor, and they will talk to their friends, family, and professional contacts, and so on and so forth. The possibilities are endless. Making a positive difference in the lives of others leads to fundraising dollars.
We understand you currently have an appeal pending before the 9th Circuit regarding accessibility in T-Mobile Park, where the Seattle Mariners play. What led you to bring the case, and how do you think the ADA can be used to help ensure that everyone has the ability to enjoy sporting events (once the country has reopened and such things are possible again)?
Our clients are lifelong baseball fans and simply want to be able to enjoy Seattle Mariners baseball with comparable options for lines-of-sight, ticket prices, and accessible seating locations to those afforded non-disabled fans. There is s no reason that a stadium constructed years after the ADA was enacted should have “back of the bus” treatment. The ADA was passed to end “tokenism” and “ghettoization” of people disabilities in assembly areas and provide them with a “comparable” and enjoyable experience as members of the general public.