How do lawyers accommodate clients with disabilities?

I will answer this question in two ways. First, in 1980 I worked at the Maryland School for the Deaf which had just started mainstreaming elementary children. Many of the children came from hearing families. Students and teachers rose to the challenge.
I was also a volunteer interpreter for one mainstreamed child and her deaf family at our church. Both parents and four of the five children were deaf. This child had stopped speaking at 3, not because she could not talk, she just did not need to at home or in the deaf school, and she did not feel comfortable with the children her age at church. To this day I remember the first time she signed AND asked me a question. Months later she was talking in the hall and had friends. Church friends who wanted to communicate with her and even learned some sign language to do so. Mainstreaming mattered. My daughter is a middle school English teacher and often shares with me her IEP students’ successes in overcoming challenges. Mainstreaming became the new normal and I think it is a better world because of it.
One of the strengths of the Americans with Disabilities Act which became law in 1990 was that it provided detailed guidelines on how to deal with a wide range of physical and mental disabilities. It established the concept of “reasonable accommodations” which are utilized in school and work environments. Later additions to the ADA would add the legal requirement of “equal rights” under the law. Surprisingly, these changes did not come without opposition. Advocacy has been required to push compliance. There has been litigation and added costs to businesses, the government and the taxpayers.
Obviously, there are different kinds of disability. Different conditions call for different responses in a professional setting. There are all kinds of barriers to the disabled, some physical, some social, some financial and some legal.
I handle Social Security disability cases; some clients are children. Mental and emotional problems are often a factor for those seeking disability. Social Security judges, also known as administrative law judges, rely on teachers and vocational experts, doctors, and other health providers in all fields. They often have a tough time evaluating how resilient and able a person is to be retrained to perform other gainful employment.
I also file guardianships, some for adult children, some for spouses, some for elderly parents or to protect a sibling. Some families have done incredible jobs dealing with family members with disabilities. Others, not so well. Disabilities are real and hard to live with. I am often helping people in crisis or planning how to avoid a crisis. The probate code requires judges to always consider the least restrictive environment and specifically address which rights a protected person should still have independence in such as to vote, to drive a car, to marry, to enter into contracts, to choose where to live to name a few.
Some disabilities come later in life. I encourage clients to plan and to spend money wisely. People with physical and mobility problems need barrier free homes, to live where there are accessible public places, and to hire help early to assist with self-care tasks. Poverty and lack of services are not issues I can always solve.
Our code of ethics directs lawyers to treat disabled clients with respect and as regular as possible. You tell disabled clients the truth. Sometimes you use larger fonts, speak loud, call to remind of appointments, use smaller words and simpler concepts, or push a wheelchair. Some situations can be improved, some I advise can only be managed with compassion and courage. In addition to legal knowledge, often you lend strength and a sense of humor.
DISCLAIMER The information given in this article is of a general nature and does not create an attorney-client relationship. You should always consult with an attorney regarding the specific facts of your situation. October 2020

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