New Disability Justice Website Aims to Explain U.S. Disability Laws

Disability law is notoriously difficult to navigate – not only for individuals with disabilities and their families, but often for the lawyers who represent them, as well. A group of experts hopes to change that with the launch of a new website that aims to help lawyers, the disability community and members of the public access and understand information about disability laws in the United States.

The creation of the website was funded by a portion of the $2.9 million settlement from the 2011 class-action lawsuit Jensen v. Minnesota Department of Human Services, which challenged the use of mechanical restraints, seclusion and other punishment techniques in state residential facilities for people with developmental disabilities. The website is the latest product of a settlement agreement that also resulted in the production of an original Twin Cities Public Television documentary “Independence to Inclusion.”

The case began in 2009, when the parents of three men who had been in the former Minnesota Extended Treatment Options (METO) program in Cambridge sued the Minnesota Department of Human Services, claiming that “as a means of behavior modification, coercion, discipline, convenience and retaliation, METO staff restrained plaintiffs using law enforcement-type metal handcuffs and leg hobbles for conduct as benign as spitting, laughing or hand-washing.” The resulting judgment, issued by U.S. District Court Judge Donovan Frank, was lauded as a milestone for disability rights in Minnesota.

Approximately $130,000 remained in settlement funds after certain class members declined payment, asking instead that the Court “do something good with the money.” The Court established a cy pres fund to enable TPT to develop the documentary and website. University of St. Thomas School of Law Professor Elizabeth Schiltz worked with Colleen Wieck, executive director of the Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities, and St. Thomas law students Julie Cayemberg and Rachel Arneson to develop the content for the site, which TPT designed.

Both the documentary and the website are intended to be used by advocates for disability rights, as well as in law school classes and Continuing Legal Education courses. The site features 72 video clips from numerous legal experts, including University of St. Thomas School of Law professors Elizabeth Schiltz and Jennifer Wright. In addition to describing the evolution of basic disability rights law, the website provides links to free legal resources and historical archives providing the context for key disability rights cases. These historical resources include videos featuring U.S. Supreme Court Justice Blackmun, U.S. District Judge Raymond Broderick, U.S. District Judge Frank Johnson and prominent civil rights lawyers, as well as exhibit photos from famous lawsuits such as Welsch, Willowbrook and Pennhurst. The website also illustrates the ongoing issues faced by people with disabilities, with links to current news articles.

Among the issues covered by the site are: reform and closure of institutions, the Olmstead decision and its impact, freedom from involuntary sterilization and involuntary servitude, right to education, right to vote, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and working with people with disabilities in the legal system as employees, victims, witnesses, clients, and wards in guardianship cases.

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