I work at a national disability rights legal nonprofit, so I get a lot of calls from people with psychosocial, developmental, and/or intellectual disabilities who need legal help. Unfortunately, because we only have one office and there are restrictions on practicing law out of state, nearly all of the work that we do in other states has to be in partnership with local lawyers. As a result, we generally can’t get involved in someone’s case unless they’re already represented (and usually can’t get involved even then, just due to resources issues).
When I can’t help a caller directly, I usually try to refer him or her to local advocacy organizations. Each state has at least one Protection and Advocacy organization that represents people with disabilities in some kinds of cases (like institutionalization, abuse and neglect, and housing discrimination), and some sort of legal services organization intended to help people with non-disability-specific issues such as criminal matters, family law, or bankruptcy. Many states also have other nonprofits dedicated to representing people with disabilities as well.
These organizations play an important role and help lots of people, but I still all too often see situations in which people who really need legal help get turned down by the local nonprofits because they’re “difficult.” A potential client is “difficult” if she (and I really mean “she” – 90% of the people I’ve seen get labeled this way are women) is hard to keep on task, if she is “emotional” and gets upset easily, if it’s hard to explain to her what’s going on and what she needs to do, or if she has “too many problems.” Or if it’s someone who wants to complain about a previous psychiatric hospitalization – one that actually was manifestly unwarranted because they weren’t a danger to self or others – and who doesn’t believe she has a disability and doesn’t want to take meds.
It’s bad enough when general legal aid organizations refuse to take these clients, but it’s even worse when the culprits are places that are supposedly devoted to representing people with physical or mental disabilities. If you don’t want to work with people who are hard to communicate with, have “bad judgment,” or are otherwise high-maintenance, don’t go work for an organization devoted to representing people with intellectual, developmental, or psychosocial disabilities. Honestly, don’t even go into legal aid services at all. When your organization functions as a legal safety net, you don’t get to cherry-pick your clients.
This isn’t to say that every single person with an intellectual, developmental, or psychosocial disability is hard to communicate or work with. But those whose disabilities do affect their ability to communicate professionally and concisely and with perfectly even emotional tenor, and who do have impulse control issues who do frequently disagree with their doctors are often exactly the people who most need free and respectful legal assistance. They are often people who have nobody on their side and very limited ability to effectively represent themselves. If they’re lucky, they have supportive family members who will interface with attorneys and navigate the system for them – many of the same attorneys who’d turn down a “difficult” client would be perfectly happy to deal with the client’s less-”difficult” family member – but most of the people I talk to aren’t that lucky.
I am generally reluctant to publicly criticize members of my profession, but this is just not okay. Yes, it does take some extra effort to deal with people who need to be frequently redirected or need to have things explained to them multiple times or keep talking about how everyone’s out to get them. But there are plenty of resources available to help legal services lawyers learn how to deal with clients who have communication and comprehension issues as a result of a disability; there’s even a manual on it published by the American Bar Association that is pretty good.
Our legal system will only work if everyone has a real opportunity to enforce their legal rights. And that means everyone.