When Joe Cordova went to pay his mortgage online with Wells Fargo for the first time in 2001, he found he had a problem: the link to the online payment option the bank had been pushing was not something he could actually see.
Joe Cordova has been blind since childhood, but his life otherwise looked a lot like anyone else’s. As executive director of the Oklahoma Department of Rehabilitation Services, he managed an 1,100 person agency with a $144 million budget just fine, going through up to 300 email messages a day using special screen reading software on his computer.
But the Wells Fargo website design didn’t work with the software. When he called the company, they referred him to an alternative payment option, which could be made by phone… except that it also incurred an additional $25 service fee.
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To Joe, this sounded a lot like discrimination. And it wasn’t the first time Wells Fargo had ignored the needs of customers with disabilities—it had also refused to accept Video Relay Service calls from deaf customers, instead directing them to dial a number at the company which it never answered. The bank failed to provide financial agreements and other important documents in Braille or large print, and rolled out cash machines in places wheel chair users couldn’t access them.
By 2010, this was all too much for the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division to stomach. They went after Wells Fargo and forced the bank to sign a consent decree in early 2011 to address the discrimination so that Joe and other people with disabilities could conduct their banking business normally and without additional fees.
Justice Department paralegals specializing in disability law were an integral part of negotiating and drafting that consent decree. Paralegals, lawyers and other legal professionals in the private sector work every day to ensure that Americans with disabilities are accommodated within the scope of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990.
Protecting the Right To Live Like Others Live
Laws against discriminating against people with disabilities only work when they are enforced, and lawyers and paralegals are integral to bringing the civil actions to bear that make this happen.
Paralegals specializing in disability law work in private practice or for companies and government agencies responsible for complying with ADA requirements where they help staff understand what accommodations are required under the law.
There are also many paralegals who work on the enforcement side of disability law. In particular, the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC) has been the agency that has done the most to ensure ADA compliance in the workplace since the law was passed in 1990. The EEOC fields complaints from disabled individuals and then works with the employer to ensure accommodations are made to comply with the law.
When the employer refuses, these cases end up in court.
Both EEOC and private paralegals working for firms representing disabled clients serve in the normal supporting roles during such litigation. This work can include:
- Researching legislation and case law related to the case
- Interviewing clients and witnesses.
- Drafting briefs, motions, and other court documents and filing them.
- Keeping the trial and office calendar and ensuring deadlines are met.
- Finding, interviewing, and preparing expert witnesses.
- Organizing and managing the case file.
Learning Disability Law Backward and Forward
New technologies often represent new challenges for the disabled. Legal teams have worked to extend ADA provisions to the realm of the internet in cases like the National Federation of the Blind versus Target Corporation. Although Target’s website was a virtual, rather than physical, environment, the court ruled that ADA still applied. Now, web designers all have to accommodate users with limited vision when creating websites—a ruling that will prevent folks like Joe Cordova from having problems with any online store or bank in the future.
The ADA may be the most important piece of legislation that paralegals working in disability law need to be familiar with, but it’s not the only one. A number of other major pieces of federal law can be applied, including:
- Telecommunications Act
- Fair Housing Act
- Air Carrier Access Act
- National Voter Registration Act
- Individuals with Disabilities Education Act
Disability Law Paralegals in Private Practice
Disability law practices will often be part of law offices that specialize in family or elder care law. Families who suddenly find themselves coping with a family member with reduced mobility and greater care requirements often end up turning to Social Security Disability as a way to afford expensive services. This has a lot of overlap with the type of work that elder care practices handle with Social Security in general.
Social Security is a program that operates under the Social Security Administration, a federal agency. This means the program is governed largely by administrative regulations, and because administrative law is a domain separate from civil or criminal law, in administrative courts paralegals are actually allowed to represent their clients directly without the supervision of an attorney. In these administrative law hearings, a paralegal can make arguments, present evidence, address the judge, and generally handle most of the same functions an attorney would handle in the courtroom.
An onerous part of disability law involves proving that a disability exists. The ADA defines a disabled person “as a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment.”
This status is frequently proved through the use of mental health evaluations or functional capacity evaluations. Paralegals often book the appointments for these evaluations with providers and follow up to receive the reports. They may arrange for evaluators to provide expert witness testimony in court to support a disability case.
Paralegals usually sit in on the initial interview with these clients and maintain the case file. Often, they serve as the primary point of contact for the client and their family. Going through a complex bureaucratic process or court case is particularly distressing on top of the daily difficulties of navigating the world with a disability, so compassion is a valuable quality in these positions.
Excellent communication skills are also important. In particular, it can be very difficult for clients to understand that a particular illness or infirmity may not necessarily be considered a disability. It’s up to the paralegal and attorney on the case to evaluate medical reports to determine what issues may or may not be accepted—and to explain to the client why that is the case.
Paralegals working on SSI disability claims can expect to spend a lot of time talking to the regional Office of Disability Review and Adjudication (ODAR) and the National Appeals Council when it becomes necessary to escalate claims.
In addition to working with Social Security and Medicare or Medicaid programs to obtain coverage for disabled clients, paralegals frequently find themselves tussling with insurance companies. For injuries that are work-related, paralegals will work with state departments of labor and industries.
How to Prepare for a Position as a Paralegal Working in Disability Law
In most respects, work in disability law can simply be viewed as a sort of specialization in administrative law or litigation. There are no disability-oriented certificate or specialty programs available; however, certificate programs through colleges and universities that teach to the litigation specialization can be very useful for paralegals expecting to see a lot of courtroom time.
The big national certification agencies also offer specialty certification programs relevant to paralegals involved in litigation. These include:
- NALS (The Association for Legal Professionals) Trial Management Specialty Certificate Program
- The Advanced Paralegal Institute Specialty Certificate in Litigation and Alternative Dispute Resolution, which NFPA (National Federation of Paralegal Associations) sponsors for CLE applicable to the NFPAs PACE exam leading to its advanced RP certification
- NALA (The Paralegal Association) Advanced Paralegal Certification Program in Trial Practice, which is in the course of being updated as of mid-2017
Because disability work involves a lot of time interacting with medical professionals and reading medical files, a background in healthcare law is also desirable. Although there are no certifications in this field, some paralegal degree programs do offer a healthcare specialization as an optional course track.