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A frustrated and tearful mother sits at her kitchen table with a cup of cold coffee in front of her. She has been making call after call to resolve the question of her son’s education … and future. Notified during the previous school year that her 10-year-old would be moved from his current school, she was afraid that the new school would not be able to address his particular learning disabilities. She had been making calls ever since, and her concerns were not being heard by his teachers, the school administrators, or even the legal advocates who were supposed to be “on her side.” Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a child is entitled to a free appropriate public education as determined by an individualized education program. The parent is to be included in the decision-making process, but many parents feel inadequate to this task. That’s where American University’s Washington College of Law steps in. Law students in the Disability Rights Law Clinic at the school take the woman’s case. The students establish a relationship of trust with the mother, accompanying her to all meetings and consulting with her regularly about steps to take. When the school district persists with its recommendation to transfer the child, the students file a due process complaint seeking to challenge the proposed placement. On the first day of the new school year, a new group of WCL student attorneys attends another multidisciplinary meeting with the client, at which the school system proposes a different placement. The clinic students investigate the new school with the mother, who is satisfied with the alternative. In addition, the students in the clinic are able to get the school system to agree to a significant amount of compensatory education to make up for the time the client’s child was in the inappropriate program. Having received all of the relief they were seeking, the law students withdraw the complaint. They continue to monitor the school district’s compliance with the agreement and any new developments. Newest clinic This kind of approach is typical of Washington College of Law’s newest clinic, the Disability Rights Law Clinic, which is approaching its two-year anniversary. Begun in September 2005 by professor Robert Dinerstein, the clinic helps local people with disabilities and their families who are working for equal rights for their children and other family members who have physical, mental, or intellectual disabilities. In addition to advocating for parents who are challenging a school system’s placement decision regarding their child, the clinic has represented parents who have been trying to get the school system to evaluate their children for special education services to deal with learning disabilities, emotional disturbance, or other specialized needs. The Disability Rights Law Clinic is a two-semester clinic in which second- and third-year law students, under faculty supervision, represent clients in a variety of substantive areas related to disability law and the rights of people with both mental and physical disabilities. During its first two years, most of the clinic’s cases were in the area of special education in D.C. and Maryland, although it has also handled cases under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and matters involving the intersection between the criminal justice system and mental disability. Recently, the clinic has been appointed to serve as guardian ad litem in cases in the D.C. Superior Court Family Division’s Mental Retardation Branch, advising the court on the extent to which individuals are appropriate candidates for admission or commitment as a prelude to receiving services from the Department of Disability Services. Dinerstein, who is now the clinic’s director, says he hopes that future client matters might include representing people with intellectual disabilities in guardianship proceedings; grievance proceedings within the D.C. Department of Mental Health; other cases under the ADA’s Title III access to public spaces section; and possibly employment discrimination cases. Going global In keeping with WCL’s strength in international legal education, the clinic will likely also expose its students to the rights of people with disabilities on a global scale by bringing cases before the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. At the international level, regional bodies, such as the Inter-American Commission, are beginning to become more active in protecting the rights of people with disabilities. The recently adopted U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities offers exciting possibilities for future developments in disability advocacy from a human rights perspective. The clinic has taken on broader advocacy and public policy-related projects as well. During the 2005-2006 school year, a student team analyzed a newly passed guardianship law for people with disabilities and their families in Chile. In 2006-2007, they took on a major project in assisting the evaluation panel serving to monitor D.C. public schools’ compliance with the consent decree entered in the August 2006 Blackman-Jones litigation, two consolidated cases in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia that address the timeliness of due process hearings in special education cases and the requirement that hearing officer decisions be implemented in a timely manner. Clinic students conducted interviews of parents, parents’ attorneys, general and special education teachers, and public school personnel, and submitted their findings as part of the evaluation panel’s assessment of the school system’s compliance with the decree. The clinic will look to participate in comparable clinic-wide projects during the 2007-2008 academic year. As in the other WCL clinics, the disability clinic emphasizes the importance of the student functioning in the role of an attorney for the clients. Students have primary responsibility for handling all aspects of the client’s case, from initial interview through attendance at relevant meetings with officials and any contested hearing, trial, or appeal. Students also have the opportunity to interact with clients with a range of disabilities, and with their family members, and to explore the nature of the lawyer-client relationship with such clients. In addition, they focus on the various ways in which society in general, and the legal system in particular, deals with people with disabilities. Students learn of the many ways in which discrimination on the basis of disability remains a significant problem in society, and the stigma that is associated with having a disability. In both casework and in the seminar, students learn pre-litigation skills, litigation skills, dealing with expert witnesses, and possibly mediation skills. Inevitably, as well, students confront ethical issues that arise in the practice of law. Through study in the clinical law program at WCL, students gain critical skills in legal advocacy before their careers even begin. WCL students have gained a reputation in the industry as well. Judges, law firms, and legal practitioners around the country and the world have said that, comparatively, WCL students enter the work force with a confidence and ability second to none. They attribute this to WCL’s internationally recognized clinical program, as well as to the rigorous legal writing training students receive at WCL. Students segue easily from law school to the work force because they are accustomed to evaluating the breadth of client cases, counseling, interviewing and gathering information, writing and presenting briefs, negotiating, preparing witnesses, and working with other attorneys. Dinerstein has been on the faculty of the Washington College of Law since 1983. Prior to coming to WCL, he was an attorney for five years at the Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Special Litigation Section, where he litigated cases concerning conditions in state institutions. For more than 20 years, he has taught a law and disability seminar at WCL. He is the author of many publications and has made numerous presentations related to the field of mental disabilities law. Dinerstein was appointed by President Bill Clinton to the President’s Committee on Mental Retardation (now the President’s Committee on Intellectual Disability) in 1994 and served on that committee until 2001. He is former president of the American Association on Mental Retardation’s (now the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities‘) Legal Process and Advocacy Division. In his personal life, Dinerstein is the older brother of a woman with intellectual and other developmental disabilities who lived at home until she was 22 years old and now lives in a group home in New York. A natural draw “I don’t think I was driven throughout my childhood necessarily to find a career to help people like my sister,” Dinerstein says, “but when I focused in on going into law, it just was a natural draw because I had observed while we were growing up how educational and other systems met, and failed to meet, her needs. Just as important, I saw the insights that she had as a person with a disability that needed to be incorporated into any approach one might take toward her.” Dinerstein notes that many advocates for people with disabilities were drawn to the field because of their own experiences. “Many of our clinic students have siblings or family members who have disabilities or have worked with people who have disabilities and find themselves similarly drawn to advocate through the law,” Dinerstein says. “If our students can graduate and find a career that is professionally satisfying that also meets a personal need or fulfills a passion, I can’t think of anything I would find more gratifying as a professor.” Kathy A. Thompson is director of public relations for Washington College of Law. For more information, visit www.wcl.american.edu/clinical.cfm.

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