Clinic Spotlight: Civil Rights of Persons With Disabilities Clinic

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Students interested in health law have several options available to them to obtain professional experience during their law school studies, including three health law clinics and more than two dozen externship placement opportunities. The Civil Rights of Persons with Disabilities Clinic, one of the oldest disability rights clinics in the country, has been providing legal services to clients with disabilities since 1975.

Clinic History 

‌Professor Emeritus Susan Leviton founded the clinic, then called the Developmental Disabilities Clinic, the same year that Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (later renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA). The law required all public schools to provide children with disabilities equal access to education and mandated provision of special services to meet the specific needs of children with disabilities. That statute came two years after the passage of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the first federal civil rights law for individuals with disabilities. The EAHCA gave parents a role in the educational process and facilitated parental involvement with schools to identify and secure what their children needed to be successful.

Prof. Leviton recalls, “These laws, the Rehabilitation Act and the EAHCA, marked the beginning of a new era. Prior to their passage, parents of children with disabilities were encouraged to institutionalize them. This was a completely new area of the law and a tremendous learning opportunity for our students.”

In 1983, Professor Stanley Herr, a longtime disability advocate, joined the law school faculty and assumed leadership of the clinic. Prof. Herr’s contributions to disability rights are well documented. In the early 1970s, he served as lead counsel in Mills vs. Board of Education, where the legal team successfully argued for access to public education for all children including those with disabilities. That landmark decision later provided the foundation for the EACHA. By all accounts, Prof. Herr was an indefatigable disability rights advocate, receiving honors from many organizations in his career including The ARC and the American Bar Association.

Through their work with the Maryland Disability Law Center (now Disability Rights Maryland), Prof. Herr befriended Marc Charmatz, an attorney with the National Association of the Deaf (NAD), a grassroots civil rights advocacy organization that represents deaf and hard of hearing individuals. In 1999, when Herr took a sabbatical from the law school, he asked Charmatz to lead the clinic in his absence. Sadly, Prof. Herr was unable to return to his role, dying from cancer in 2001.

Prof. Charmatz carried on Herr’s legacy and assumed leadership of the clinic for the next 18 years. During that time, he continued to serve as litigation counsel at NAD and combined his work there with his work at the clinic. Prof. Charmatz recalls, “While I have tremendous respect for those engaged in work at the policy level, I am client-driven - I want to represent individuals, particularly those having difficulty finding counsel. I knew we had plenty of clients in need of representation at NAD. I realized that working in collaboration with NAD would be a great educational tool to teach students about real-world legal representation in the context of disability rights.”

In recognition of his contributions, Prof. Charmatz’s work as an advocate for individuals with disabilities was recently featured in an article in the ABA Journal discussing the origins and achievements of the disability rights movement.

In 2014, Prof. Charmatz recruited Caroline Jackson, Staff Attorney with NAD, to serve as co-instructor. He stepped down from his role directing the clinic after the spring 2017 semester; Anna Bitencourt joined as clinic co-director in fall 2017. Prof. Bitencourt currently serves as a staff attorney and Director of Intake at NAD.

Prof. Jackson joined the NAD as a Skadden Fellow after law school. Long interested in disability rights, Prof. Jackson worked as a sign language interpreter in New York City before returning to school to pursue her law degree. Prof. Bitencourt, who is deaf, worked in private practice for several years after law school and occasionally received referrals or requests for assistance in cases involving deaf clients from the NAD. She began working at NAD part-time and was then invited to join the organization on a full-time basis to direct client intake and litigate cases.

Training Students to Advocate for Civil Rights

Profs. Jackson and Bitencourt work with student attorneys to represent clients with disabilities in a variety of settings and collaborate with other organizations involved in broad impact litigation.

The classroom component of the clinic provides students with a foundation in disability law including the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act, as well as related laws in the areas of education, employment and public benefits. Clinic students handle cases at all stages of legal proceedings, including initial client interviews, drafting pleadings, counseling, discovery, motions practice, trial and appeal. Through their participation in the clinic, they develop an understanding of the public policy issues that influence the ability of individuals with disabilities to participate in society, as well as the various stakeholders involved in protecting and promoting disability rights.

Many of the cases students handle address issues of communication access for deaf and hard of hearing individuals. Deaf and hard of hearing individuals and their family members face obstacles in a variety of settings from schools to health care institutions to jails where they lack access to the tools necessary to effectively communicate and engage. Students participate fully in the intake process, receiving initial calls from potential clients, learning how to communicate with clients and obtain facts about their case. Students work closely with Prof. Bitencourt to review the facts of each case and determine if it is suitable for litigation. Prof. Jackson supervises the litigation component.

The clinic handles a wide variety of cases – education, employment, and access to health care. Last year, for example, students represented an individual who was denied admission to a radiology technician training program because she was deaf. That case went to jury trial and was ultimately resolved in the client’s favor. Students also engage in advocacy outside the courtroom, drafting demand letters on behalf of clients to ensure that accommodations such as captioning and interpreters will be provided in various contexts. In addition to the nuts and bolts of litigation and advocacy, students learn about deaf culture and work closely with deaf professionals. They also learn about the protection and advocacy system established by federal law to protect disability rights.

Many of the clinic’s student attorneys have continued to advocate for the rights of individuals with disabilities. Munib Lohrasbi ‘17 was awarded an Open Society Institute-Baltimore Community fellowship to improve conditions for people with disabilities in prison in Maryland. He is working with Disability Rights Maryland to inspect state prison facilities and evaluate current assessment and accommodation procedures for individuals with disabilities.

Other graduates have gone on to hold positions at the Department of Justice and disability rights advocacy organizations in other states, a testament to the clinic’s lasting impact on students.