Disability Rights Law Clinic


Robert Dinerstein
Professor of Law
Associate Dean for Experiential Education
Director, Disability Rights Law Clinic

Lauren Onkeles-Klein, Practitioner-in-Residence


Hilary Kelly
Sr. Administrative Assistant

The Disability Rights Law Clinic (DRLC) began operation in Fall 2005. Professor Robert Dinerstein founded the clinic and directs it.

The DRLC is a two-semester clinic in which law students represent clients and their families in a variety of matters related to disability law and people with disabilities (both mental and physical). A significant focus of the DRLC is on examining circumstances in which clients with disabilities are wrongly assumed to lack physical or mental capacity to participate in society to the same extent as people without disabilities. The DRLC represents clients in special education matters in Washington, DC; admission/commitment cases (as either counsel or guardian ad litem) before the Mental Health and Mental Retardation Branch of the Family Court of DC Superior Court; cases arising under Titles I-III of the Americans with Disabilities Act, regarding discrimination on the basis of disability in  employment, state and local services and public accommodations; grievance proceedings within the DC Department of Mental Health; guardianship proceedings; transactional matters, such as home purchases and applications for 501 (c)(3) status; immigration matters; and so on.

In addition, each year the DRLC takes on broader advocacy projects on either a clinic-wide or multi-team basis. Such projects have included assisting the Evaluation Panel serving to monitor the District of Columbia Public Schools’ (DCPS) compliance with the Consent Decree entered (in August 2006) in the Blackman-Jones litigation, two consolidated cases in the United States 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 in such cases be implemented in a timely manner; conducting a 50-state survey of state statutes for commitment/admission of individuals with intellectual disabilities, as part of the research supporting efforts to amend the District’s statute on services for people with intellectual disabilities; and analyzing the laws in the 50 states on guardianship for people with disabilities in connection with efforts to seek Senate ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.  The DRLC also has worked with other WCL clinics to address issues that intersect between disability and intellectual property and human rights, among other areas.

As in the other WCL clinics, the DRLC emphasizes the importance of the student functioning in role as an attorney for the client(s). Students have primary responsibility for handling all aspects of the client’s case, from initial interview through meetings (such as IEP meetings in special education cases) and any contested hearing or trial (and, if necessary, 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, we will focus on the various ways in which society in general, and the legal system in particular, deals with people with disabilities. In both casework and in the seminar, students learn pre-litigation skills (interviewing, counseling, negotiation, development of case theory), litigation skills (direct examination, cross-examination, openings and closings), dealing with expert witnesses, and mediation skills.  Inevitably, as well, students confront ethical issues that arise in the practice of law, as clinics, including the DRLC, provide excellent sites for learning about, and reflecting upon, ethical issues that can be straightforward or complex.

Students receive a total of seven (7) credits per semester to cover the weekly clinic seminar, case rounds, and work on clinic cases. Evidence is a co-requisite for the DRLC—if not taken already, it must be taken during the summer preceding entry into clinic or, at the latest, in the fall semester in which one is enrolled in clinic. There is no pre-requisite for the DRLC, though Special Education Law (LAW-750, taught by adjunct professor Sy Dubow), Law and Disability (LAW-715, taught by Professor Dinerstein), Juvenile Law: Children’s Rights (LAW-638, taught by Professor Cannon), or Civil Rights and Remedies (LAW-933, taught by adjunct professor Mark Gross) may be helpful given their focus on various aspects of disability law.

This is an exciting time to have a clinic in disability rights. At the national level, statutes such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (amended in 2008), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act have led to a burgeoning of the rights of people with disabilities (even as judicial interpretations of these and other laws have sometimes limited their intended scope) and heightened visibility of people with disabilities in all aspects of public life. Locally, a combination of federal court cases and local legislation has given people with disabilities additional 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, and the recently-adopted UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (adopted by the UN General Assembly on December 13, 2006; in effect as of May 3, 2008; signed by the US on July 30, 2009) offers exciting possibilities for future developments in disability advocacy from a human rights perspective. At the same time, people with disabilities continue to be subjected to societal discrimination, whether because of animus or thoughtlessness, and stigma that limits their opportunities for full participation in society.