In addition to fighting for the civil rights and civil liberties of my clients in the courtroom I am also honored to help lead the ACLU of Nebraska as a board member and the organizations Equity and Inclusion Officer who is responsible for leading our diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. As part of my volunteer leadership I actively participate in meetings, trainings, and conferences with the ACLU at the state and national levels. I recently attended the ACLU’s Biennial in Boston and shared some of my reflections about the conference with my ACLU family in Nebraska and was asked to share as a blog to spotlight the intersections of disability rights and civil rights. So here goes!
First: My wife Liz and I spent the night at a La Quinta Inn in Omaha so that I could arrive at the airport at 5 o'clock in the morning to go through all the security checks. Things have not changed since 9/11 as for some reason TSA is bound and determined to find a terrorist in a wheelchair. At both Epply and Logan in Boston, I was submitted to full patdown searches of my person for no other reason than I could not go through their machines while being in my wheelchair. That said, rather than put up a fuss and delay I went ahead and had them do the patdown searches in full view of everybody, so that maybe someone would see how ridiculous our airport security has become.
Second: it was alright to arrive at the Boston Sheraton early because we were put into a wheelchair accessible room that was available (even though we were early) in the corner on the 20th floor overlooking the Charles River through one window and the backside of the big green monster at Fenway Park in another.
Third: Being the redheaded guy in a wheelchair left many people remembering me from prior Biennial conferences. I took the time to meet with many other ACLU leaders from across the country including my counterparts in Idaho and Alaska. I was flattered to find out that the Idaho affiliate had developed their equity plan from what we developed in Nebraska in cooperation with ACLU national.
Fourth: Following our ACLU of Nebraska board work, I believe we are leading the way in incorporating diversity in both our board and our staff. Much of what I learned at that first equity and inclusion session at the conference with jon powell were things we had already been exploring together in Nebraska. I also made a point during this plenary discussion to note how far we have come, as a nation, since the ADA has become law. In fact I think that "reasonable accommodations" might be a starting point for dealing with the many inequities that have become so commonplace in our society. For example, while my wife Liz and I would love to go to Japan one day, we know they have nothing like the ADA to ensure basic accommodations.
I followed up on workshops spanning electoral work, ballot initiatives, campaigning and managing risk. Following that presentation, it seems clear that the ACLU is looked upon as one of the main ways in which people can get their government to listen to their constituents! I also attended a workshop on combating voter suppression, another instance in which our affiliate has done a good job keeping the ballot box open. However, there continues to be issues in Nebraska with partisan and racial gerrymandering and other unneeded barriers to the ballot box. As a defense attorney I was also excited to learn more about the Smart Justice workshops to understand how we can Hold Prosecutors Accountable for Fueling Mass Incarceration. While this workshop was informative it also reminded me of the need for judicial branch education and accountability as well to make sure our local judges don’t place overly high bonds on people with low level crimes like simple possession of controlled substances which leaves those unable to pay languishing in county jails while presumed innocent. It is very frustrating as a defense lawyer whose number one perspective seems not to practice law, but to find a way in which my client can get out of jail so that the time he or she serves is less than the time he or she would receive if actually convicted of the crime.
Fifth: Transportation was a real challenge for wheelchair-bound attendees like me. My wife Liz and I struggled for one and a half hours waiting for a wheelchair accessible taxicab to take us to Logan airport. It was only when it became apparent that no wheelchair accessible taxi than was going to show up at the hotel, that we discovered that there was a shuttle bus to Logan airport from the hotel. Maybe we are not good at pointing these things out, but no one ever bothered to tell us, including the hotel concierge, that that might be the best way to get to the airport. In desperation, having discovered it on my own, we learned that Logan, or particularly Eastern Airlines, actually assigned someone to the handicapped person to help them get through TSA and to their flight. Our flight to O'Hare was delayed due to the weather impacting our ability to make our connecting flight to Omaha. I think I would still be sitting on the Eastern Airlines flight except for the fact that my wife Liz who understands these challenges and how to advocate for equity when we travel together alerted staff effectively and efficiently when she discovered that an aisle accessible wheelchair was not waiting for me. They scurried around, got the wheelchair, had an airport attendant almost run me to the next gate where the plane was delaying just because of us. Then, since the flight was already delayed, they were further delayed because "a weight distribution problem" had occurred. While the rest of the people on the flight were unaware of what the "weight distribution" problem was, Liz and I both new that it was because the workers at O'Hare did not know how to load a 200 pound wheelchair into the rear space of the airplane. So, while the rest of the people in the flight just sat and patiently and waited Liz and I kept quiet. We arrived back at Omaha’s Epley Airport at 2:00 AM and then still had a trip in front of us to get home to Ames, Nebraska.
I am proud to be a leader in an organization like the ACLU that strives for an America free of discrimination against people with disabilities, where people with disabilities are valued integrated members of society who have full access to education, homes, health care, jobs, and families. We are also committed to ensuring people with disabilities are no longer segregated into, and overrepresented in, civil and criminal institutions such as nursing homes, psychiatric hospitals, jails, and prisons. To learn more about the ACLU’s Disability Rights work please visit: