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Public Interest Lawyers Show Interest in Autism

September 28, 2010 7 comments

This is a guest post by Lorri Unumb, Autism Speaks senior policy adviser and counsel. Lorri also teaches “Autism and the Law” at the George Washington University Law School.

Autism is a hot topic for discussion at various types of conferences these days, from epidemiologists to economists to educators.  You still, however, don’t often see autism on the agenda at legal conferences. That’s why I was so excited over the summer to have the opportunity to speak about autism legal issues at a national conference of legal aid attorneys and encouraged by the keen interest demonstrated by the lawyers in attendance.

Every state in the nation has at least one legal aid organization, which provides legal services to the poor, and a protection and advocacy organization, which provides legal services for the disabled. Lawyers who work at these organizations, as well as public defenders (who work in the criminal arena), are typically members of the National Legal Aid & Defenders Association (NLADA). As set forth in its website (www.nlada.org) NLADA champions effective legal assistance for people who cannot afford counsel, serves as a collective voice for both the civil legal aid and public defense communities throughout the nation, and provides a wide range of services and benefits to its individual and organizational members. Founded in 1911, NLADA is the oldest and largest national, nonprofit membership organization devoting all of its resources to promoting justice for all in the United States.

Among its activities, the NLADA holds national conferences and trainings for public interest lawyers. My husband, Dan Unumb, who is Director of Litigation at South Carolina’s legal aid organization, proposed trainings on “Representing Families with Autism” for two of NLADA’s summer conferences held jointly in July in Chicago. NLADA enthusiastically accepted and supported the proposal.

The first workshop was presented as part of the Litigation and Advocacy Directors Conference, which is designed for experienced litigation and advocacy directors to assist them in identifying, promoting, and pursuing cutting-edge legal issues in their programs.  A panel of five legal experts educated the attorneys on autism legal issues ranging from health insurance to special education to Medicaid. Presenting attorneys included Sue Tobin of Ohio Legal Rights Service and Sarah Somers of National Health Law Project on Medicaid issues, Tracey Spencer Walsh of Mayerson & Associates on special education law, and Dan and me on health insurance and other autism-related issues.

The second workshop was geared to front-line legal aid attorneys who handle day-to-day representation of low-income or disabled clients. At this workshop, Dan and I were joined by Kirby Mitchell, Managing Attorney of one of South Carolina Legal Services’ largest offices, to present a broad overview of legal issues surrounding autism including health insurance, special education, Medicaid and life-planning issues such as guardianship, conservatorships, custody and child support, hospital collection defense cases, bankruptcy, Medicaid trusts, tax planning, and Social Security disability actions.

The range of legal issues a family affected by autism may face is vast, and the need for lawyers, judges, and judicial staff to be educated on them is equally great.  This outreach is critical to improving legal representation, judicial decisions, and the overall response of the legal system to the complex challenges posed by autism.  This summer’s presentation was a good step in the right direction, and Autism Speaks is committed to making further inroads toward ensuring effective legal representation of families with autism.

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