Tom Dooling

Disability rights lawyer ‘just lucky’

By Tom Dooling

Spring 2011

Apostrophe magazine asked me several weeks ago why somebody would go to college for seven years, get a law degree and then advocate for people with disabilities. I guess the best answer is the punch line to the old joke: “Just lucky, I guess.”

First, I don’t think we should have to have advocates: people with disabilities shouldn’t have to have specially trained professionals to guarantee their rights. Instead, people with disabilities should be accepted and accorded all the rights and benefits of any other member of society, including the right to eat too many chocolate chip cookies and suffer a stomachache as a result.

Instead – and we advocates are as guilty as anyone else – assume that people with disabilities need someone else to do for them what they can’t do for themselves. I have worked with folks who do a marvelous job of sticking up for their own rights – and bear cheerfully the consequences  (i.e., “punishment”) they receive more often than not for doing so.

There will come a time when disability rights advocates will be just about as necessary as blacksmiths, but that time hasn’t come yet. We now broadly recognize the civil rights of some members of our society who were being shunned and segregated in the 1960s.

It has taken a lot of advocacy, a lot of pressure and a lot of changes in the law to turn our society’s view around. Many of the people who helped make those changes were lawyers who stood at the side of people who were unpopular and disliked, who advocated,  marched, demonstrated, litigated and refused to shut up. There is more to preserving the civil rights of people who are oppressed because of their disabilities than spending money on treatment, in institutions like Montana Developmental Center and Montana

State Hospital, or in the community. There is more to civil rights than the good wishes for the benefit of people with disabilities. If money and good will would provide equality and civil rights, advocacy would no longer be necessary.

Unfortunately, people with disabilities need more than protection, food and a dry place to sleep. People with disabilities need dignity, privacy, autonomy and the best therapy and treatment our society can find.

Second class and second best is not good enough, but first class and state of the art will not be provided by our state and our society unless someone makes it unavoidable.

Montana, its institutions, its government, its laws, its courts and its people can be worthier of the gift we have received in not only our beautiful state but in its variety of priceless people, especially those who enrich us by challenging us to be our best. It has been the sad experience of the human race, however, that we don’t rise to a challenge unless we’re subject to some pressure to do so.

Until we outgrow this need, we’ll need advocates, lawyers and advocacy lawyers to remind us that what we’re doing not only isn’t the best we can do, it isn’t right, ethical or even legal.  

 A former Disability Rights Montana staff attorney, Tom Dooling provided legal support to both the Abuse and Neglect, and the Developmental Disability service units.  

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