Ableist Attorneys

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.



Filed under Disabilities, Feminism, The Law as Applied to Weird People & Situations, Uncategorized

11 responses to “Ableist Attorneys

  1. Dr. Placebo

    And don’t get me started on those who, as a matter of course, turn away all potential clients with mental illnesses because they assume that the client will be “difficult.” And the private plaintiff’s bar isn’t the only place I’ve seen that attitude. At one point in the fall I decided not to bother sending a resume to one legal aid organization after finding that its disability rights office accepted only “physical disability” cases.

  2. Twitchy Woman

    Seriously… although I sort of feel especially betrayed by people who are supposed to be a legal safety net for people with mental disabilities and still think that they can just turn away the “crazy” ones. I expect them to know better.

  3. It is so sad and frusterating when this happens. Its hard when organizations only focus on potential clients who are “strategic”. What is worse is when these organizations mock the clients they are supposed to serve. I get it that people with mental illness or developmental disabilities may be harder to work with, but really is it fair to laugh at them?
    Sorry for ranting….

    • Twitchy Woman

      Yes, please rant! I get the need to vent sometimes (any client can be frustrating and even a bit funny sometimes), but not in a way that demeans or belittles clients based on their disability.

  4. Thanks for this. For someone in that situation it really is everything stacking up against you and discrediting you in every possible way just so that you can’t make decisions for your own life. Having just one person who takes you seriously can make a difference.

    • I guess I’m double posting now but as a question, do you have any idea of the gender rate of people in mental institutions? I know that they have targeted women a lot and I wonder how much of most of the “difficult” people being women has to do with women with their problems just being more likely to be locked away. I subjectively feel like there’s not a huge difference between how male and female people in mental institutions are seen, but the place I was at was definitely majority female and there’s plenty of evidence that “mood” things (bipolar, depression, etc) are diagnosed more in women, whereas with men it is more often assumed that they have actual problems.

      • Twitchy Woman

        I’m not entirely sure what the gender rate is; it may vary from state to state depending on how they’ve set their systems up. I’ve certainly heard a lot of stories about women being involuntarily committed because they were crying nonstop and it was just assumed that they might hurt themselves; men are socialized very early not to cry and therefore are less likely to have the same sort of behavior when distressed.

        I’d also wonder whether men (and women of color) are more likely to be arrested and jailed for some of the same behaviors that get white women committed, but I have no data about this either. Anecdotally it seems to be a thing.

        Oh, and I will also note that on college and university campuses, the gender disparity seems to have been eliminated if not reversed because universities tend to perceive men who are odd or in apparent distress as threats to campus safety, and will use commitment as a way to address this perceived threat in cases where the men haven’t outwardly violated any student code of conduct.

        • ” I’ve certainly heard a lot of stories about women being involuntarily committed because they were crying nonstop and it was just assumed that they might hurt themselves”

          holy shit you have no know idea how much this has happened to me. like this is seriously one of my biggest day to day fears. I ran away from the police/ambulance when someone did this to me recently because I knew I wouldn’t be able to do all the things to make them leave me alone. It involved a nonpolice/hospital person chasing me on a bicycle.

          Anyway thanks for the answer.

  5. As another non-neotypical attorney, I definitely agree. Unfortunately in this neck of the wood it appears impossible to be hired by the very organizations that represent such as us. Especially if you admit to having a child with special needs. Legal? probably not. Reality? ya, you betcha!

    • Twitchy Woman

      Tell me about it! This is the worst part. I think they not only have the assumption that the people they serve aren’t competent (so we can’t possibly be like them and also worth hiring) but also that we’ll take everything “personally” and that will make us less professional, as if relating to your clients is a bad thing. Yes, it is bad to make everything about yourself and tote own issues, and yes it’s true that many of my clients actually would not make good lawyers. But I am still more like them than like many of my coworkers.

      I am fortunate that the org I work for is mostly not like that. But it’s an exception and you can really tell. We’re actually known as somewhat radical.

      • Anonymous

        The “people they serve aren’t competent/worth hiring” thing is why I didn’t go into autism therapy. I was forced out of a volunteer job with kids on the autism spectrum for fabricated reasons near the end of my psychology degree, and I’m pretty sure it was because people were freaked out by my Asperger’s diagnosis. I was fine there for a while, but then I met a different bunch of people and got screwed. The incident ended up mirroring a previous incident that gave me PTSD, and I was totally turned off working in social services.

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