When the fourth annual tenBroek symposium was gaveled to order by President Maurer on Thursday morning, April 14, 2011, disability advocates, law students, lawyers, legal scholars, and governmental officials began discussing how to further the cause most dear to Jacobus tenBroek: gaining equality for the blind and other people with disabilities and providing them the same civil rights granted to the nondisabled in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The day-and-a-half symposium consisted of general sessions and breakout discussion groups. In addition to the NFB Jernigan Institute, symposium cosponsors included the American Association for People with Disabilities; the American Bar Association Commission on Mental and Physical Disability Law; Ferleger Wealth Management, LLC; the American Bar Association Section on Employment and Labor Law; Brown, Goldstein, and Levy, LLP; the Maryland Department of Disabilities; Rosen Bien and Galvin, LLP; and Thomson Reuters, the providers of the WestLaw service.
The Symposium included two keynote addresses. The first was presented by Chai Feldblum, commissioner of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Ms. Feldblum was appointed by President Obama and has been in her current job just over a year. Her central message was that now is the time to capture the attention of the public, particularly employers, using the newly authorized regulations to propel the ADA into the news and put it on the radar for American businesses. The president has appointed officials particularly concerned about the needs of people, and it is time to make the law do, in the next ten years, what it has not done in the twenty years since its passage. The attitude, isn’t it fantastic you have a job, must be replaced with one that expects the disabled to have a job, a home, and all the other things Americans have as they live the American dream.
The keynote speaker for the luncheon was former Senator Christopher Dodd, who now lives in California and works for the Motion Picture Association of America. He flew most of the night to address the Symposium but said he couldn’t think of anywhere he’d rather be. In his moving remarks Senator Dodd talked about the civil rights battles he had the pleasure to join and about his sister, who has been the inspiration motivating much of his work for the blind and other people with disabilities. The senator has been a leader in championing every piece of legislation dealing with the blind since he was first elected to Congress and began serving on January 3, 1975, as a member of the House of Representatives. He was elected to the Senate in 1980, where he served for thirty years, making him the longest-serving senator from the state of Connecticut.
The first panel of the Thursday morning session, introduced by President Maurer, addressed the subject “Lessons Learned: Translating What Worked for the Civil Rights Movements to the Disability Rights Movement.” The first presenter was Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. He said he was honored to be a part of something sponsored by the National Federation of the Blind and proud to do something associated with the name of Dr. Jacobus tenBroek. The Leadership Conference, which Mr. Henderson chairs, has two mottos: "we are trying to build an America that is as good as its ideals," and "If you want a friend, you must be a friend." Mr. Henderson emphasized that, though achieving civil rights has been long in coming, had there been no NAACP in 1909, there could have been no Dr. Martin Luther King speaking on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963; if there had been no Martin Luther King making his speech in 1963, there would have been no Barack Obama accepting the Democratic Party nomination forty-five years to the day later.
Shannon Price Minter, the legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, talked about the struggle for equality, noting that disability rights efforts have been more successful in getting protection for the disabled through legislation than have people with sexual differences, but, in true acceptance, sexual difference is more accepted by the public. He noted that Dr. King observed that laws declare rights but they don’t deliver them and no law is self-executing. Legal advocacy is not enough to achieve lasting social change. The public has to come to embrace the message for the spirit of the law to be realized.
Near the conclusion of the panel, President Maurer noted that, while many in the country saw the beginning of civil rights as the 1954 Brown versus Board of Education ruling by the Supreme Court, the legal arguments made there owe much to the lectures and writings of Dr. tenBroek as early as 1951. This makes the celebration of his life and work all the more appropriate.
The balance of Thursday morning was filled with workshops focusing on “Disability as a Protected Class for the Purpose of Seeking Political Asylum”; “Disability Law 101: Everything You Wanted to Know about the Principles and Doctrines of Disability Law”; “Advocating for People with Disabilities in the Criminal Justice System”; and “When and How to Use the Broader Civil Rights Laws when Representing People with Disabilities.”
Following the luncheon address by Senator Dodd, Andrew Imparato, senior counsel and disability policy director, U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, provided attendees a legislative update and some history surrounding the passage of the ADA, changes to the Voting Rights Act, and other legislation affecting people with disabilities.
The Thursday afternoon plenary session began with a discussion of “When the Messenger Is the Message: How to Portray Disability to Judge and Jury.” The discussion focused on how lawyers with disabilities are perceived when they appear in court and how their legal work affects their clients, including people with disabilities. This panel featured Scott C. LaBarre, LaBarre Law Offices P.C.; Larry Paradis, executive director, Disability Rights Advocates; and Michael Waterstone, J. Howard Ziemann Fellow and professor of law, Loyola Law School.
Following this presentation, the breakout workshop topics included “Using Social Science to Influence the Jury's Perception of Disability”; “How to Overcome Stereotypes and Misconceptions to Win a Child Custody Case for the Disabled Parent(s)”; “The Disability Rights Model and Guardianship: Mutually Exclusive or Compatible Concepts?”; and “High-stakes Standardized Testing and the Americans with Disabilities Act.”
The afternoon session wrapped up with a seventy-five minute discussion on the topic “The Effect of Diversity in the Disability Rights Movement on Court Decisions.” Both NFB President Marc Maurer and Howard Rosenblum, chief executive officer of the National Association of the Deaf, made presentations and then engaged in a discussion about differences and similarities in the needs of the two groups in order to play a meaningful part in society. One interesting similarity is that professionals in work with the deaf and professionals in work with the blind all too often resist American Sign Language and Braille, while an overwhelming majority of deaf and blind people favor these tools and see them as absolutely imperative in their successful integration into society. Both groups struggle with the issue of integration in early education, and both groups are challenged to find qualified teachers who know the curriculum they are to teach and the special skills their students must master in order for them to compete.
“Disability Rights as Constitutional Rights” was the topic that began the Friday morning session. Presenters were Ruth Colker, holder of the Heck Faust Memorial Chair in Constitutional Law, Ohio State University Moritz College of Law; and Robert Dinerstein, professor of law, American University, Washington College of Law. While the Constitution clearly speaks to the rights of all citizens of the United States, interpretations of this vital document by the courts of this land clearly do not provide for equality of opportunity for people with disabilities. Since the Constitution does not directly address the rights of people with disabilities, too often court decisions reflect the bias and prejudice brought to the courtroom by judges and the justices of the Supreme Court. Particularly insightful comments from the previous day suggested that we need a large majority in our nation to make a fundamental reassessment of the capability of people with disabilities in addition to language in the statute books.
The final series of workshops addressed “The Impact of Reasonable Accommodation on the Employment Rate of People with Disabilities”; “Discrimination against People with Disabilities at the Polling Place”; “Working with the United States Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division”; and “Challenges to Institutionalization.”
The last plenary session focused on “Disability Rights in the Obama Administration” and key presentations from Russlynn Ali, assistant secretary, Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, and Kathleen Martinez, assistant secretary, Department of Labor, Office of Disability Employment Policy. Both emphasized the president’s commitment to increase employment of people with disabilities and their shared goal of seeing that the federal government is a model employer. Businesses should be able to look to the federal government both to measure our country’s commitment to the inclusion of people with disabilities in the workforce and to see how it is done using assistive technology, reasonable accommodation, and an emphasis on using the unique strengths of each person.For a more detailed analysis of the material covered during the symposium, visit the tenBroek Symposium Website at <http://www.nfb.org/nfb/Law_symposium>. As a Federationist familiar with Jacobus tenBroek’s work on behalf of the blind, this lay writer was impressed to see how his work has shaped the views of so many citizens committed to the concept of equality. Attendees and their causes were diverse but were united by tenBroek’s demand that this country live up to the bold words of her Constitution and to the promises made to all of its people to be everything they can be.