ADA Network Equips Attorneys for Diabetes Cases
Since the mid-1990s, the American Diabetes Association has been committed to ending the discrimination that people with diabetes face at school, at work, in public places, and elsewhere in their lives. A key component of this effort is the Advocacy Attorney Network, a nationwide group of lawyers who have pledged to help fight discrimination based on diabetes. Begun in 2000, the network now has more than 725 attorneys around the country.
For people with diabetes who believe they have faced discrimination, the process of tapping into the legal network often begins with a phone call to ADA's National Call Center (box, below), which receives some 170 discrimination-related inquiries a month. Callers are sent extensive information about fighting
discrimination, and those needing specialized legal guidance are referred to ADA legal advocates, who can advise them about rights and how to exercise them, help find ways to negotiate a solution, and, in some cases, refer them to a network attorney nearby. Fees vary with each lawyer in ADA's network; some offer a free initial consultation and many take cases on a reduced or contingency fee basis. Experienced ADA volunteers and staff provide the attorneys with training, materials, and individual help.
Dealing With Discrimination
Sometimes all it takes to remedy a situation at school or in the workplace is a simple phone call from an attorney who can explain the legal rights of a person with diabetes. In other instances, though, people discriminated against because of their diabetes are forced to seek redress in court, such as in the cases of Jeff Kapche, who was denied a job by the FBI, or John Steigauf, who lost a position at UPS, both because of their insulin-treated diabetes. Both men won their cases with the help of ADA network attorneys, including John Griffin of Victoria, Texas, who is now ADA's Chair of the Board-Elect, and Kathy Butler of Houston, who is a member of the ADA Legal Advocacy Subcommittee.
Many of the network attorneys have specialized experience, a personal connection to diabetes, or both, which gives them special insight into life with a chronic disease. That can be invaluable to clients who are fighting misconceptions about diabetes that may lead to discrimination. Without the training and other support provided by ADA, "even attorneys who deal with discrimination law, unless they've actually faced illness, still may be pretty vague on some things," says Brenda Oats-Williams, 49, a network attorney in Memphis, Tenn., who herself has type 2 diabetes.
Oats-Williams, who had put her career ambitions on hold to raise her family, found a renewed desire to become a lawyer when she experienced being a plaintiff: She was a stay-at-home mother of five in Lincoln, Ill., who was turned down for a substitute teaching job. She filed a racial discrimination claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and won. "I saw the difficulty for people trying to prevail in a situation where they don't have the evidence to prove what had been done to them," Oats-Williams says.
At 29, she moved to Memphis with her five sons, who took turns cooking dinner while she went to law school at night. Oats-Williams got her law degree and began working for the nonprofit Memphis Area Legal Services Inc., representing people who otherwise couldn't have afforded legal help. Two years ago, Williams formed her own general practice firm. She's currently working on a diabetes case that was referred to her through ADA's network. Eventually, she plans to focus entirely on discrimination law.
Fighting for Fairness
Through her involvement with the Advocacy Attorney Network, Oats-Williams attended Fighting for Fairness, an ADA training conference held every other year to give attorneys the tools to better represent people with diabetes. "We understand that to meet people's needs, [attorneys] need to really understand diabetes," says Steve Bieringer, former coordinator of Fighting for Fairness and associate director of legal advocacy at ADA. The conference, he says, achieves this goal "by educating both in the relevant aspects of discrimination law and its application, and in management of diabetes."
Bieringer, who has had type 1 diabetes for 43 years, was instrumental in expanding the Advocacy Attorney Network. "Two big accomplishments [in the past decade] are the growth of the network—there are now attorneys in most states throughout the U.S.—and ADA's capacity to remain in constant touch with them through a Listserv that we have developed," Bieringer says. He added that face-to-face trainings through Fighting for Fairness and, more recently, the use of more technology through webinars and an extensive Web site providing legal resources have helped reach attorneys on a more cost-effective basis. ADA will also connect attorneys to diabetes health care professionals who can act as expert witnesses in discrimination cases, through the ADA Health Care Professionals Legal Advocacy Network.
The training and other ADA resources keep attorneys in the network up to date on court cases, advocacy strategies, and new legislation, and allow them to learn from their colleagues' experiences. When the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act went into effect in 2009, for instance, ADA coordinated a webinar on the subject. Attorneys across the country could log on and quickly catch up on the law, which makes clear that people with diabetes are protected from discrimination and entitled to accommodations.
Oats-Williams says this kind of attorney education is vital as long as people with diabetes continue to face discrimination. "There are still people who suffer silently because they fear for their jobs," she says. "We need to continue knocking down those barriers."
Finding Help Today
If you believe you have been discriminated against because of your diabetes, call the American Diabetes Association at 1-800-DIABETES (1-800-342-2383) to request a free packet of information, plus assistance from a legal advocate.
To join the ADA Advocacy Attorney Network, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.