COMMISSION ON DISABILITY RIGHTS

‘It’s our turn,’ to advance disability rights, says ADA author

Tony Coelho, the former California member of Congress who authored the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), believes too few people with disabilities are lawyers, judges or law students.

Speaking at the recent symposium, Creating Opportunities for Law Students with Disabilities in the 21st Century: Inclusivity on Campus and in the Workplace, sponsored by the ABA Commission on Disability Rights and American University Washington College of Law, Coelho joined legal employers, law school faculty and diversity leaders in addressing the progress and challenges law students and young lawyers face. 

Tony Coelho, former member of Congress, encouraged legal employers to sign the ABA Pledge for Change.

Tony Coelho, former member of Congress, encouraged legal employers to sign the ABA Pledge for Change.

American Bar Association photo

Citing statistics from the ABA Profile of the Legal Profession, Coelho said that among lawyers, 36 percent are female, 15 percent are ethnic minorities and .5 percent have disabilities. “You heard it right, only a half of 1 percent,” he said. “These statistics are very sobering, which tells us we have a lot of work to do.”

Coelho, who has epilepsy, said law firms, law schools and most professions do not keep track of disabilities, which means they’re not providing the necessary accommodations to ensure a “truly diverse workforce.”

“We’re making progress,” Coelho said. “In our country people of color had to fight for their civil rights in the 60s. Women had to fight for their civil rights in the 70s. The gay community had to fight for their rights in 80s. It’s our turn, but we’ve got to fight for it.”

In welcome remarks, ABA President Judy Perry Martinez said that as a profession, lawyers “need to be honest about where we’ve fallen short in the past and charter a new path forward toward a more diverse profession.”

She said it will take “ingenuity, significant resources, collaboration and -- most critically -- changes of culture,” to achieve accommodation and “ultimately diversify and become more inclusive.”

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