As the month of October comes to a close, it is worth considering how Disability Employment Awareness Month applies to the State of Indiana.
I am disabled. My mental disability is from Camp LeJeune poisoning in utero and as an infant for 19 months. My main physical disabilities are from a reckless driver breaking my bones from skull to ankle on my way to work at the Indiana Supreme Court.
Thus, the United States and the State of Indiana have benefitted from my disabilities. One might say they owe me. In fact, the Camp LeJeune Justice Act of 2022, to which I regularly refer, will result in compensation.
The problem is the State of Indiana, where at the end of my tenure as the Statistical Analyst for the Supreme Court, I was granted a law license and was for all intents and purposes a staff attorney at the Court. My hiring letter says I was hired to be at the staff attorney level.
I passed the bar exam after taking it in February 2002, one year after my car accident, and still in much pain on a daily basis as I served the Supreme Court and the 400+ courts below it. The conflation of my disabilities with passing the bar challenged a basic assumption in Indiana so fundamental that the Chief Justice did not know whether to congratulate me or fire me.
He chose to fire me. You see, Indiana bans all disabled people from practicing law. Ind. Adm. & Disc. Rule 23, Sections 2(c) & 3(b). And no agency can hire a lawyer in Indiana to interpret state law without being a member of the Indiana bar.
So, the Chief Justice was backed into a corner where a severely disabled person who worked for him passed the bar and the character and fitness interview. I love the fact that I kept a copy of my business card, since it is a reminder that disabled people can function at the very highest level in law.
This card is a living testament to Disability Employment Awareness Month because I was a disabled attorney working for the Chief Justice and providing services to over 400 Indiana state courts. Not only that, but the Chief Justice hired me with paperwork showing I was highly competent, highly talented, and provided services to practically the whole judicial branch and the executive and legislative branches too. I was #1 out of about 500 applicants.
My situation changed when my physical and mental disabilities became apparent. It was an uncomfortable reminder that not all disabled people are incompetent and totally incapable of being good lawyers. But that is the assumption behind the ban.
It gets worse. If you think about it, the ban prevents disabled people from advising state government on the ADA or any other law that protects disabled people. The ban blocks employment of disabled lawyers because there are none licensed in Indiana officially. No state agency, civil rights group, non-profit, or business of any kind officially can hire a disabled lawyer. Judges and prosecutors and defense attorneys may not be disabled. That atmosphere, that disability-devoid bar and bench is the pool for federal officers, federal judges.
And thus, we have a hostile bar and bench to disability rights. Imagine if women could not practice law. Imagine if blacks or Latinos or people over the age of 50 were excluded from the bar. Other civil and human rights categories are treated far better than disability because none of those categories in 2022 has an automatic assumption of incompetence attached.
Thus, discrimination is baked into every last nook and cranny of the legal system in Indiana and reaching far above it. The federal courts are not about to intervene to make sure disabled people can not only get licenses, but also be hired as attorneys throughout the system.
The values of the ADA are impossible to reach when the legal system is against disability so viscerally that no attorney in Indiana can have a disability.
This sounds bad, right? It is bad, but Indiana is a backwater ready for reform. I saw this because Michigan already has a blind justice on its state supreme court. The Chief Justice of the United States went out of his way to learn American Sign Language so he could swear in groups of deaf lawyers to the bar of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Even the ABA has a Commission on Disability Rights and has a long list of disabled lawyers who are considered to be “assets to the profession of law.”
Guess what? I was January 2014.
You can see what I said back in 2014. The attitude changes in lawyers and judges are the hardest things to change, but history is moving away from the bad attitudes. Indiana will change, but the system is going to go through a violent upheaval period, like choking or vomiting, while these heinous assumptions are abandoned and replaced with disability rights, access, and opportunities.
Instead of firing me, insulting me as incompetent, and taking my 5 law license properties without compensation or any good cause, Indiana can pay me and invite me to lead the efforts for change.
The Indiana Supreme Court has a race and gender commission, but that’s not good enough. Disability is part of Diversity and that Commission needs to become a Diversity Commission instead. I am a white man, but I am also physically and mentally disabled from my sacrifices to Indiana courts and my sacrifices when my father was stationed at Camp LeJeune preparing to serve in Vietnam.
Indiana, I am your guy. I am waiting for the invitation. Until it comes and disabled people are welcome to be lawyers in Indiana, October as Disability Employment Awareness Month won’t mean much there and the suffering will continue for all disabled people.