Our Interview Afield series, through which we introduce advocates to one another, continues with Barry C. Taylor, vice president for civil rights and systemic litigation, at Equip for Equality in Chicago. Barry has successfully litigated discrimination cases under the Americans with Disabilities Act against numerous defendants: the National Board of Medical Examiners, the Chicago Police Department, and the Chicago Transit Authority, among others. Before joining Equip for Equality, which is the Protection and Advocacy organization for Illinois, in 1996, Barry was the AIDS project attorney in the Midwest office of Lambda Legal. Besides litigating, he frequently gives presentations on disability rights to a variety of audiences. Barry is a regular contributor to Clearinghouse Review (see The Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act: Reopening Access to the Courts for People with Disabilities, with Rachel M. Weisberg).
What’s a case or client or piece of advocacy that comes to mind as giving you particular personal satisfaction? Why?
I’d have to say our three class actions on behalf of people who have disabilities and are living in institutions but want to live in the community. Before I came to Equip for Equality, I thought I understood disability discrimination, but I had no idea that being segregated from the rest of society was a form of discrimination, and that the issue was so acute in Illinois. Our state institutionalizes people with disabilities at a much higher rate than almost any other state, and because of the political power of those who favor the institutions, the only way we could achieve systemic change was through litigation. Reaching consent decrees in these three cases, and seeing thousands of people with disabilities finally being given a choice to live in the community, has provided enormous personal satisfaction. The cases were also an opportunity to cocounsel with great lawyers from other public interest agencies and pro bono law firms. Given my inclination to work collaboratively, these partnerships have made these cases even more satisfying to work on.
I think we in the public interest community should learn to take the time to celebrate our successes before diving into the next case or crisis. This would allow people to reflect on the positive impact they’ve had and hopefully address the burnout issues that arise so frequently in our work.
What’s a case or client or piece of advocacy that comes to mind as causing you particular anxiety? Why?
In one case a guardian wanted to sterilize her disabled family member involuntarily, and I found it abhorrent that in the twenty-first century people with disabilities could be subjected to such inhumane treatment without due process. Fortunately, we secured a positive appellate court decision requiring due process protections for people who have disabilities and whose guardians want them sterilized, and we were able to get that decision codified statewide through legislation. Despite these successes, I still worry that some people are able to convince doctors to perform this extreme procedure on their family members with disabilities without going through the courts as required by the law.
If you were in charge, what’s one way (other than having more funding!) that public interest legal work would be different?
Public interest attorneys work extremely hard, often receiving very little compensation or recognition. I think we in the public interest community should learn to take the time to celebrate our successes before diving into the next case or crisis. This would allow people to reflect on the positive impact they’ve had and hopefully address the burnout issues that arise so frequently in our work.
What’s one thing you wish legal services lawyers understood better about the protection and advocacy system?
I think there’s a real untapped opportunity for collaboration between traditional legal services attorneys and protection and advocacy attorneys. For instance, the statutory authority that protection and advocacy agencies have gives us broad access to people with disabilities and their records. I believe that this access could be used more strategically in conjunction with legal services attorneys to address issues of common concern facing people with disabilities.
What’s one of your guilty pleasures?
I’m a real theater buff. I did a lot of performing in high school and college. Even after graduating from law school, I continued to perform which was a great creative outlet while I was working for a law firm. Family considerations have curtailed my theatrical pursuits in recent years, but I still very much enjoy going to the theater. Fortunately, Chicago is a great theater town, so I have lots of choices!
Barry Taylor can be contacted at BarryT@equipforequality.org.