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Activists Organize at Seventh Annual Disability & Civil Rights Roundtable 


On Feb. 5, an audience of 117 law students, city and state officials, disability advocates and activists, and community leaders gathered for the seventh annual Disability and Civil Rights Clinic Breakfast Roundtable at Brooklyn Law School. The roundtable gave attendees a collaborative environment in which to explore recent legal and policy developments impacting adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities while exchanging ideas, establishing new community partnerships, and deliberating on solutions for change. The virtual event was cosponsored by the Law School’s Disability and Civil Rights Clinic and the Center for Health, Science and Public Policy.

“We are really excited that we could hold the Roundtable this year,” said Professor Prianka Nair, clinic codirector. “It felt especially important to bring the disability community together at a time when so many of us are isolated and distanced from each other.”

The theme of this year’s roundtable, “Persisting in Crisis: Civil Rights and the Disability Community,” was chosen to address all of the changes in the space caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and renewed calls for racial justice.

“We hope that this will be a place for members of the disability community to talk about how we survived, coped, managed, organized, and advocated throughout this tumultuous year,” said Professor Sarah Lorr, clinic codirector.

The keynote address, given by advocate and activist Janice Bartley, called on participants to make sure their voices are heard, especially those for whom attending large gatherings and rallies could be dangerous or physically prohibitive.

“Self advocates can get involved and make a difference from home,” said Bartley. “Rallies and marches are effective only if they get the attention of someone with the power to make a change. Use your voice to contact them directly, either by phone, email, a letter, or even Twitter.”

After the keynote, participants broke into working groups focused on different subject areas, where they shared knowledge and concerns and discussed strategies to enact progress. Topics included enforcing rights in carceral settings and policing, challenges in accessing special education services, access to services provided by the New York State Office for People with Developmental Disabilities, discrimination in health care, supported decision making as an alternative to guardianship, and the right to family.

“This clinic is a perfect exemplar of what clinical legal education is all about,” said Dean Michael T. Cahill in his opening remarks at the event. “It satisfies the twin goals of hands-on training for students and, just as important, helping to serve the legal needs of groups and populations that might otherwise be unmet or neglected.”

The Disability and Civil Rights Clinic focuses on protecting and advancing the civil rights of adults with intellectual disabilities. As one of the few law school clinics in the country specializing in this area, it functions as a pro bono law firm, with students representing low-income adults and their families in a variety of civil legal matters, including housing, public benefits, access to health care, special education, parental rights, alternatives to guardianship, asylum, and discrimination concerning access to programs and services.