November 01, 2012

November 2012: Michelle Uzeta

A Tireless Advocate for Persons with Disabilities  

“Disclosure of your disability has to be a personal choice,” says Michelle Uzeta, the Legal Director of Disability Rights Legal Center in Los Angeles, California. “I’ve chosen not to hide my condition, but I don’t wear it on my sleeve either.” Uzeta recognizes that disclosure can affect employment and advancement opportunities.  “With disclosure comes an almost automatic label of ‘not management material’… we still have a way to go.” 

Early on at UC Davis School of Law, Uzeta began experiencing bouts of depression, coupled with severe anxiety and insomnia. She rarely attended classes with other students, opting to deal with her condition through home study and community-based clinicals, and by immersing herself in the arts - painting, dance and the local music scene. Today, Uzeta splits her workday into shifts to facilitate emotional decompression, avoids large social events that will trigger her anxiety, and utilizes a single room when traveling overnight to accommodate her insomnia. She acknowledges that she has been lucky to hold positions that allow her flexibility to self-accommodate, while maintaining the choice of when and to whom to share information regarding her disability. 

Disability rights law has proved to be a natural fit for Uzeta; she has practiced in the area for the last 20 years.  She remains inspired by the wise words of Anita Roddick: “If you think you’re too small to have an impact, try going to bed with a mosquito in the room.”

Uzeta measures her successes by the difference she makes in her clients’ lives. She recounts stopping the eviction of 21 tenants with disabilities when their housing provider tried to switch to “senior only” housing; obtaining accommodations for an Iranian woman to take the U.S. Citizenship exam; and transferring a dying tenant to a vacant ground floor unit so she would not have to crawl up a flight of stairs after thrice-daily dialysis treatments. 

Uzeta credits her longtime mentor, Bernadette Franks-Ongoy (“Bernie”) with shaping her disability rights-related convictions, values and beliefs, particularly in the area of personal autonomy. She met him at Disability Rights Hawaii, her first job out of law school. “Bernie served, and continues to serve as a role model for me—she embodies the essence of the disability rights movement.”

Uzeta understands the value of serving as a mentor. So much of her day-to-day work at the Center, as well as at Loyola University School of Law’s disability rights clinical program, is devoted to cultivating the skills and feeding the interests of law students and new attorneys embarking on disability civil rights law as a career. Uzeta relishes in the knowledge that many of these people have gone on to practice in the area of disability rights, and that she gets to stay in touch with them to share ideas and briefs.