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Diversity, inclusion and the journeys of a disabled attorney

I attended the opening reception for the MSBA Leadership Academy, where all, including me, applauded one of the first classes in the academy’s long history to be composed of a majority of women Fellows. As the sole lawyer and mentor with a guide dog at the reception, I listened to those wonderful speeches of newly minted Fellows and reflected upon disability inclusion.

Disability would be more integrated into society if it were recognized as a major factor of the social fabric alongside all the other attributes and characteristics that make up a diverse society.

Disability is unique in that anyone may eventually experience a social recognition or a legal identification as having a disability. In particular, our society has often doubly disabled women with disabilities, both as women and then as persons with disabilities, through antiquated attitudes, laws, and policies.

I have enjoyed a mixture of that which all lawyers with disabilities experience at some point: rich, meaningful adventures and influence on public policy and also what seems like ingrained, intractable bias. Any lawyer with disabilities partnered with a guide dog could be “on top of the world” one night speaking to hundreds, shaping policy. The next day, we enter a place of public accommodation only to experience an entirely separate set of encounters.

One learns to spot these presumptions or even explicit bias when leading an active, trailblazing life. In my long-term experience, every occasion I enter a meeting or a board room and I am the “first blind person” a fellow professional knows or where an unstated thought exists as to why I am at said place with my dog shows that bias remains. All sectors of society, including the legal profession and the nonprofit sector led by lawyers, must support, and deepen disability inclusion, including especially by women with disabilities.

As one positive step, I applaud the Biden administration for the 2021 Executive Order on Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility. This executive order expanded diversity work to include “A” for accessibility. I hope that this expands the diversity community to recognize disability as a dimension of diversity.

Power comes from being in the room. At a dinner with a client I orchestrated, one of my dining companions argued the need for “sponsorship,” placing people with diverse disabilities on boards, committees, and staff. This cannot be a “check-the-box” exercise but a process in which people with disabilities and other intersectional identities have a chance to thrive without bias.

What a difference it would be for disability inclusion if a majority of members of a board room or a pipeline program were those with disabilities?

Websites, mobile applications, and social media must be considered as a place of public accommodation. The evolving range of social dialogue and information-sharing tools must also be accessible and usable by people with disabilities.

As I recently advised a client, if an actor in society uses these tools then they must be usable by those with disabilities. Under the proper and remedial interpretation of disability law, a digital and a physical storefront is still this: a storefront.

While this regrettably yet occurs, as a general rule society no longer tolerates denying access to other historically marginalized groups, such as Blacks, to a coffeehouse or to a restaurant. Still, even if the U.S Department of Justice soon issues a final rule on digital accessibility, some will dismiss those provisions as burdensome regulations and annoying civil rights requirements for blind people. Some business actors will inevitably argue for the need for Trump-era “people-over-paperwork” notions.

I physically live on edges and ledges, requiring grace and help from outside sources. I have been blessed and honored to collaborate with guide dogs for 20 years. Even the best of guide dogs navigates closely to a curb. This requires a compassion and a resiliency; two beings must collaborate for success both on the physical edges and ledges of life as well as the figurative ones that society would impose.

In conclusion, I must be a partner with my guide dog, Bowie, and he my partner. Likewise, all of us must be, thoughtful allies of other marginalized groups if we are to embody and to model Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility.

Congratulations to the 2022-23 class of Fellows, especially to any who may have a disability.

Gary C. Norman, Esq., LL.M., is a past chair of the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights. He can be reached at (410) 241-6745.