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Celebrating the Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act

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By Monica Porter, 2016 Equal Justice Works Fellow sponsored by Borsecnik/Weil Family and The George Washington University Law School

Photo of Monica Porter

Today marks the 29th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a celebration of the landmark federal law enacted to prohibit discrimination and provide for equal access and opportunities for people with disabilities. It is also a time to recognize that more work needs to be done.

For example, many students with invisible disabilities—those which are not immediately apparent—do not disclose their disability or seek out accommodations to which they are legally entitled, because of persistent social stigma and fear that self-disclosing may impact their academic or professional careers. Additionally, misconceptions remain about the purpose and effect of reasonable accommodations, which exist purely to enable equal access in such crucial areas as education, employment, and housing. Lawmakers and advocates can better protect and promote the rights of people with disabilities by including people with lived experience in their rulemaking and advocacy.

The inspiration behind my Equal Justice Works project was personal. My family includes people with mental health disabilities, and my college community lost multiple students to suicide in one year. Beyond my own relatives and classmates, one in five adults in the United States, and one in four higher education students in California, live with a mental health disability such as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia. Still, stigma persists, and many people are unaware of or afraid to access resources that are available to them. Nationwide, suicide is the second leading cause of death among higher education students, and claims the lives of more than 1,000 students each year. Approximately half of the students who drop out of college do so because of a mental health disability. Recognizing the prevalent nature of these issues fueled my desire to make a change.

I became an Equal Justice Works Fellow because it was a unique opportunity to identify a gap in existing legal services and spend two years working to address it. It is an invitation to join an incredible network of public interest advocates across the country who are doing the same thing, and will be with you for the rest of your career.

Photo of Monica Porter at work

My Fellowship project at Disability Rights Advocates focused on advocating on behalf of higher education students with mental health disabilities. In my first year, I collaborated with campus and community leaders to identify the most pressing issues impacting students with mental health disabilities and provided “Know Your Rights” trainings to college students from across the country. In my second year, I worked with Stanford University students to file a class action lawsuit regarding the university’s leave of absence policies and practices.

During my Fellowship, I was able to support students with mental health disabilities to become self-advocates. Many students with mental health disabilities do not know that they are entitled to reasonable accommodations and protection from discrimination under federal law, like students with learning, visual, hearing, and/or mobility disabilities. Each time I was able to help a student with a mental health disability realize new resources available to them—or that they were not alone in facing challenges—it made me increasingly grateful to be an Equal Justice Works Fellow.

 If you haven’t already, get to know your local organizations that are working with and for people with disabilities. The disability rights movement is dynamic, and there are many opportunities to get involved—I hope you will!

We are proud of Monica’s contributions for improving access to justice for students with disabilities. Learn more about how our other Fellow alumni have created a lasting impact in their communities.

I became an Equal Justice Works Fellow because it was a unique opportunity to identify a gap in existing legal services and spend two years working to address it. It is an invitation to join an incredible network of public interest advocates across the country who are doing the same thing, and will be with you for the rest of your career.

Monica Porter /
Equal Justice Works Fellow Alumna

Learn more about becoming an Equal Justice Works Fellow