My Yellow Brick Road
I broke my neck when I was 18 years old due to a diving accident. In that instance my lifetime goal of becoming a chef was a distant memory, along with a variety of unique skills including destroying competitors at ping pong. There I was; 18 years old, a C 5/6 quadriplegic, and clueless as to what the path held in front of me. I felt like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, heading down a road with the unexpected. Granted, I didn’t run into flying monkeys, but I have had my fair share of run-ins with wicked witches. I found my husband along the way, who has the courage of the Lion, the brain of the Scarecrow, and the heart of the Tinman…Of course after they met the Wizard of Oz.
Within the first month of being home after my two and half month long hospital stay, I realized the extreme injustices that people with severe disabilities faced. I made up my mind to go back to school to be an attorney. Law was always my fallback plan. I know what you’re thinking, “Wow, law school is the obvious back up plan to culinary school!” My passion for art and food notwithstanding, I am a tough negotiator, able to hold my ground. Where I grew up, I constantly had to stand up for myself, and thanks to a father who is a natural negotiator, and a mother who is a linguistic master I was bred for a career as an attorney.
I started back at school a little more than a year after I broke my neck, and I continued to go to physical therapy a minimum of 3 hours a day, 5-6 days a week. My therapists told me to not go full-time because they thought I couldn’t handle it, and when I returned after signing up for classes I was proud to announce I was taking 12 credits. I continued going to school, taking a semester off for a serious surgery, and eventually graduating from Arizona State University.
For the past 10 years I have advocated for disability rights. I have primarily focused on disabled parking, exposing the misuse, abuse, and serious need for legislative reform. It is not just disabled parking that is in need of reform, but also a vast majority of outdated laws that do not meet the needs of severely disabled individuals. I never expected that my Yellow Brick Road would have led me here, but thanks to my accident, I became an accidental advocate.
A Severe Need for ADA Attorneys
I chose to go to Phoenix School of Law (now known as Arizona Summit Law School), a for-profit law school, because their claims of accommodating diversity and disability were so appealing. I could not have been more misguided. Due to many of the doors being so incredibly heavy, I was unable to access essential areas such as the study rooms, “accessible” bathrooms, quiet areas, and even the library! Despite pleas with multiple administrators and staff, the problems persisted for over two years. This is when I realized how helpless someone feels when they are denied access.
There I was, a third-year law student and I didn’t know what to do! I found an attorney that did Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) work, but he did employment work and not compliance work. I reached out to a friend at the Arizona Center for Disability Law who referred me to the Attorney General’s office. I ended up filing a claim against the law school, but soon I realized that the Attorney General didn’t represent my interest, but instead the State’s. While they have been incredibly helpful, and got the school’s attention, I did not receive personal representation. From the beginning, I knew I wanted to do disability law, and I was even further inspired to do so when I personally discovered the great need that exists for these types of legal services, and the dearth of private attorneys who were available, capable, and willing to assist people (like myself) with their important disability-related legal needs.
A Legal Solution Outside of the Box
That brings us to the point of this article. I saw a need, and I wanted to fill it. I told myself to be true to myself no matter what, and not settle on a firm until I found one that would support my goals 100%. I graduated on a Saturday in December of 2013, and due to a series of lucky events I had an interview the following Monday. That’s when I met Attorney Brigham Cluff of the law firm Cluff & Cluff for lunch, along with a mutual friend and fellow attorney who connected us. I was interviewing for one position, and got hired for a completely different position. During our lunch meeting, I expressed the importance of community service and my plan for serving the disabled community. He loved it, and I knew the puzzle pieces were falling into place. As I am in limbo and studying for the Bar Exam in late February 2014 our firm is moving in the direction of “Holistic Representation” while I await being licensed.
So what is this new type of legal representation? I can’t say it any better than Brigham did, and that is “Holistic Representation”. I wanted to litigate serious personal injury from the beginning, with special focus on severe neurological disabilities caused by someone else’s negligence. However, representing someone purely for their personal injury claims fails to ensure the client of reaching his or her highest potential future success. Having suffered a spinal cord injury myself, I have a unique perspective. I myself have struggled for access and fought for disability rights. I have seen too many severely injured friends blow through settlements and suffer needlessly when they discover the reality that they are unable to provide for themselves or maintain the level of care necessary when living with the financial consequences of a serious injury.
The Benefits of Holistic Representation
How do our clients benefit Holistic Representation? By providing help with ADA compliance and guidance to prevent clients from depleting settlement funds. First, it only makes sense for our firm to represent ADA claims to ensure our clients are wholly represented, and beyond that provide free resources to help them understand their rights. Second, referring a handful of financial advisors that specialize in financial planning for people with disabilities available to individuals who have recently received a settlement will assist in ensuring their funds continue to provide them with the highest level of care possible.
I’m sure you’re thinking, “Why haven’t more attorneys decided to do this?” That is a very good question, but going through a serious personal injury myself has given me a unique insight that pushes me towards thinking about the whole picture. We, and by we I mean all us who have suffered a severe injury, need access to resources and ways to determine what our rights are.
With that said, as you read this our firm is creating a new site that offers easy to understand resources to help people empower themselves. We plan to offer the ability for people to ask ADA questions and get free responses. In addition we are very excited to pair up with PushLiving.com and the incredible Deborah Davis to answer travel related ADA questions sent in from anyone who might have ADA travel related questions. I look forward to what the future holds and I know I am going to continue to fight for established and new disability rights, as well as much needed reform. It is fulfilling to know I am not alone, and that will fuel the success of improved ADA rights.
Gina works with Cluff & Cluff, PLC Law firm in Arizona, a firm dedicated to holistic representation. Should you have ADA questions, you can submit them here or visit clufflaw.com
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