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Losing his left arm in an industrial accident a decade ago was bad enough for Anil Mehta, but the California law firm doors that were quietly shut in his face when he sought work as a lawyer years later added insult to injury. “Nobody would offer me an employment opportunity because I have a visible impairment,” Mehta recalled recently. On the phone, firms would sound encouraging, he said, but “you meet them at the door, and they say, ‘We have filled that position.’” Mehta, now an attorney in Washington, D.C., with the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Hazardous Materials Safety and Emergency Transportation Law Division, said that his experience was by no means unique. Almost all lawyers with disabilities, he said, face discrimination on a daily basis — a statement supported by a survey released last week by the State Bar’s Committee on Legal Professionals with Disabilities. The online survey, conducted in a six-month period last year, found that disabled lawyers face high unemployment, a shortage of services, resistance to reasonable accommodations and “a surplus of skepticism” — 13 years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. “Inasmuch as they look back with pride on more than a decade of historic change,” the report states, “healthy majorities of legal professionals with disabilities are not broadly optimistic about the future of their place in California’s judicial system.” Laurence Paradis, executive director of Oakland’s Disability Rights Advocates, said the survey, which the State Bar is circulating for public comment, doesn’t surprise him in the least. “Discrimination against people with disabilities still remains very rampant throughout our society, and in our experience, it’s as rampant, if not more so, in the professions — the legal profession, the medical profession,” he said. “The physical and attitudinal barriers that people with all types of disabilities face have not improved, despite the ADA. And there is a real lack of enforcement of the ADA.” No one knows for certain how many California attorneys are disabled. The group is self-identified, notes the State Bar. In the Bar’s most recent demographic survey, conducted in 2001, 4 percent of respondents named themselves as physically disabled. Only 150 lawyers participated in the State Bar survey this year, but the pollster, Hertz Consulting in Petaluma, felt the responses were sufficient to show that a “significant number” of disabled attorneys face a high level of discrimination. The biggest complaint was lack of employment opportunities, with 45 percent of the respondents — even those in the upper 10 percent to 20 percent of ABA-accredited law schools — saying they had been denied jobs because of their disabilities. Among those with visible disabilities, the problem was worse, with 68 percent reporting job refusals. “Unless the disability was apparent, attorneys with disabilities preferred not to reveal their disabilities to others for fear of jeopardizing their employment,” the survey found. “To some extent, these fears were validated as responders indicated that certain law firms, upon discovering the attorney’s disability, would revoke job offers.” Participants reported that they were sometimes told that it would be too much of a “hassle” to accommodate disabled lawyers and that their disabilities might upset clients. Paradis said he knows of a Harvard-educated lawyer — now a commissioner with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission — who was told by a law firm partner that company clients “would think we’re running a circus” if he were hired. The man was a dwarf — what is now called a “short stature” disability. Many who took part in the State Bar survey said discrimination didn’t stop once they got jobs. They were often given low-level assignments not commensurate with their work skills, passed over for promotions and paid far less than the average lawyer. Negative comments came from supervisors, judges and co-workers, and they were denied reasonable accommodations, such as voice-activated computer software or barrier-free courtrooms, on a regular basis. “In one particular example, deposition was set in a building that did not have an elevator,” the report states. “The attorney had difficulty climbing the stairs, but the opposing counsel refused to move the deposition elsewhere.” The report says discrimination will continue unless society’s “stereotypes and misconceptions” about the disabled change. Paradis, a Harvard Law School graduate who uses a wheelchair because of a genetic bone condition, agrees. “People assume if you’re deaf or blind or in a wheelchair that you’re going to be less productive, less intelligent, less able to contribute, and that’s just wrong,” he said. “You would hope your own legal profession would be more enlightened,” he added, “but apparently it’s not.” Mehta, who’s the chairman of the State Bar’s Committee on Legal Professionals with Disabilities, said the group’s survey was one step in trying to usher in change. “We wanted to know what problems we face,” he said. “This issue had to come forward.” The report makes several suggestions for improvement. Among them: Educate firms about the advantages of hiring attorneys with disabilities, assist disabled lawyers in finding work, provide the courts information about accommodations and find out why so few disabled students are applying to law schools. Mehta himself is new to the law. He got his degree in 1997 from Fullerton’s Western State University College of Law, following a career as a mining engineer. He took to the profession quickly. He won the American Bar Association’s Pro Bono Publico Award for devoting his first year in practice to serving the poor at Santa Ana’s Public Law Center. “We have to change the perceptions,” Mehta said. “[The disabled] have minds. Disability doesn’t mean they don’t have something to offer or something less to offer. You have to provide that opportunity for that person.”

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