The changing face of disability law
Boalt Hall symposium looks at legal protections for a vulnerable, diverse population

By Marguerite Rigoglioso


disability conference

At right, Jan Garrett, director of the Center for Independent Living, speaks with a participant in the law school’s March 5 conference, "The Changing Face of Disability Law in the New Millennium.”
Noah Berger photo

20 March 2002 | If you’re a woman, child or elder, you’re particularly vulnerable to violent crime in our society. And if you have a major physical or cognitive disability, you’re four to ten times more likely to be raped, robbed or assaulted than a non-disabled person. If you bother to report the crime, chances are your charge will be dismissed by a social services agency, the police or the courts as simply not worth pursuing.

That was the disturbing news from Daniel Sorensen, program coordinator of the California Health and Human Services Agency’s Crime Victims with Disabilities Initiative. Sorensen spoke as part of “The Changing Face of Disability Law in the Millennium” symposium, held March 15 at Boalt Hall and presented by the Boalt Disability Law Society.

Sorensen noted that people with developmental and other substantial disabilities are likely to be sexually assaulted repeatedly, often by caretakers or others in positions of authority. And he said that most homeless women with intellectual disabilities are raped.

“It’s clear that there is an immense epidemic of violence against people with disabilities, and that the civil rights movement within this community needs to be much more proactive about the issue,” said Sorensen.

He then reported on some good news: the California Health and Human Services Agency’s initiative to increase crime prevention activities in the disabled community. The initiative will raise the reporting rate of these crimes and help the criminal justice system more effectively investigate and try these cases.

Varied topics
Some 175 people attended the symposium, including academics, lawyers, activists, practitioners and students. Panels covered a variety of topics of importance to the disability community, including access to education and health care, technology and litigation. Both a professional signer for the deaf and a large screen displaying presenters’ comments via voice recognition software were part of the day’s events. Works by artists with disabilities and photographs chronicling the disability movement were on display, as well.

On the “Disability and Community” panel with Sorensen was Jean Lin of Protection and Advocacy, Inc., who addressed the alienation that people of color with disabilities experience within their own cultural groups.

“In multicultural communities, where uniformity is highly valued, people with disabilities are often seen as outcasts,” she said.

Lin noted that some cultural beliefs — for example that people with disabilities are lazy, suffer from punishment by evil spirits, or should live as passive recluses — can hinder people with disabilities from leading fulfilling and productive lives.

“We need to be patient and continue to teach our communities that with the proper assistance, people with disabilities can do almost anything others can do,” she said.

‘Invisible’ disabilities
Audience members discussed how to support people with “invisible” disabilities, such as learning problems, and how to encourage lawyers to take on rape and assault cases of victims with cognitive impairment.

San Francisco attorney Kathi Pugh, a Berkeley law school alumna who coordinates pro bono cases for people with disabilities, noted that “Lawyers who reject cases involving the intellectually disabled, because they assume these people make poor witnesses, are really acting from their own prejudices. Studies show that people with such disabilities are actually more credible and reliable because of the kinds of details that they tend to focus on.”

Added Douglas Dildine, youth coordinator for Independent Living Resources in Contra Costa County: “People with disabilities who have been victimized by crime have difficulty in a system in which there are institutionalized barriers to access. For example, rape kits and tests for sexual assault become unusable simply because a hospital may not have the right table for examining a person who uses a wheelchair. So even gathering evidence becomes a problem.”
Julie Curry — a staff member at Berkeley/Oakland’s Center for Independent Living, who came with her dog in tow — summed it up nicely: “Supporting the rights of crime victims who have disabilities is an important battle, one that is long overdue.”

Most were pleased with the day’s discussions and the favorable attendance suggested that a need had been filled. As Bebo Saab, president of the Boalt Disability Law Society, explained: “The purpose of the symposium was to highlight the importance of disability issues for everyone and to create alliances and bridges. We think it’s been a great way to begin establishing Boalt as a major center for disability law in the country.”


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