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July 26, 2004

Disability law group targets Riverside, San Diego counties

From: North County Times, CA - Jul 26, 2004

By: DAVE DOWNEY - Staff Writer

A prominent Los Angeles disability rights group that has been going to bat for the blind, deaf and crippled for nearly three decades, and was party to Riverside County's electronic-voting lawsuit, is preparing to open offices in the Inland Empire and San Diego County in 2005.

Eve Hill, executive director for the Western Law Center for Disability Rights, said the group's presence will mean local efforts to fight discrimination against disabled children in schools, retrofit freeway call boxes so they are useful to the deaf and prevent cancer patients from losing jobs.

"The reason we have chosen those counties (Riverside and San Bernardino) is because they are the fastest-growing areas in Southern California, and they are not being served in proportion to their rate of growth," Hill said. "And San Diego (County) is just too hard to serve from Los Angeles."

"The need has been there for a long time," she added, but only recently has the law center had the resources to consider expansion. Hill said the center intends to open offices in the cities of San Diego and San Bernardino.

Founded as a nonprofit group in 1975, the center moved in 1983 onto the Loyola Law School campus, which continues to serve as its base today. As recently as 1995, the center had just three staffers. But by 1998, that number had risen to eight, and today it employs 23 people, including a dozen attorneys, Hill said.

Western Law Center attorneys worked with lawyers for Riverside County in the spring to challenge, unsuccessfully, the secretary of state's mandate that electronic-voting counties give residents the option of voting by paper ballot in November. The center argued that the mandate violated the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act because it threatened to take away touchscreens. The machines have given persons with disabilities the opportunity to vote without assistance and in private.

Earlier this month, a federal judge rejected Riverside County's ---- and the law center's ---- bid to void the state mandate. Still, center attorney Paula Pearlman said the group is not discouraged. She said the center is used to winning.

In response to a suit filed by the center and other groups, the same judge ---- U.S. District Judge Florence-Marie Cooper ---- blocked in April 2003 the closure of a Los Angeles County hospital that provided crucial rehabilitation services to disabled people.

Also last year, Hill said, the group sued Los Angeles police for holding a deaf man several hours, after mistaking his sign-language motions for aggression. A settlement requires police now to provide an interpreter within 45 minutes, whenever one is needed to interview a suspect, witness or victim.

On Monday, the center announced a settlement with travel companies that had refused to book a blind man on a Grand Canyon bus tour because of his guide dog. Hill said the companies have agreed to let the blind, and their dogs, climb aboard.

When the center reaches Riverside and San Diego counties, a first priority will be those freeway call boxes, some of which were not designed with the deaf in mind.

Hill said the nonprofit tackled a similar problem in Los Angeles, when deaf people were told to "tap several times on the box with a stick, assuming you could find a stick, while everybody else got to say, 'I need a tow truck,' 'I need an ambulance' or 'I need a police car.'" As a result, today Los Angeles call boxes are equipped with TTY systems and are low enough for wheelchair-bound people to reach, she said.

Janeen Steel, director of the center's learning-rights project, said the group also wants to go to bat for disabled students who are needlessly excluded from activities with other students.

"People with obvious disabilities are getting segregated into special classes they do not need," Steel said. "That's a civil rights issue."

Another goal is to help area cancer patients. Barbara Schwerin, director of the group's cancer legal resource center, who lost her father, brother and several other family members to cancer, said such patients often need legal aid to avoid losing jobs and homes, and receive what they are entitled to from their health insurance.

For more information on the law center, call (213) 736-1031 or go to

Contact staff writer Dave Downey at (951) 676-4315, Ext. 2616, or

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