Kathryn Mayer ’13 uses ADR skills to give voice to those with disabilities
During her time at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law, Kathryn Mayer ’13 became involved in the Alternative Dispute Resolution Program where she earned a Certificate in Dispute Resolution—a decision that would ultimately have a huge impact on the direction her career would take after graduation. She now works as a staff attorney at Disability Rights New York (DRNY). DRNY is a nonprofit law firm that provides all federal Protection and Advocacy (P&A) services for persons with disabilities in the State of New York.
“I use the hands-on practical experience and knowledge I gained from my participation in the mediation practicum and other ADR courses more than almost anything else I learned in law school. So much of my job involves trying to find creative ways to settle disputes to avoid litigation, or engaging the community in projects that challenge the status quo. My ADR courses were great because they helped me learn how to go about the process of bringing parties with seemingly different agendas to the table so that together they can talk about a common goal and ultimately come up with an agreeable solution,” she said.
After graduation, Mayer leapt at the chance to use the skills she honed at Moritz to help give a voice to those with disabilities.
“When I interviewed for my position, the director of the organization told me they were looking for attorneys with diverse backgrounds who they felt would be passionate advocates for the civil and human rights of people with disabilities. I didn’t necessarily know that much about the area of disability law at the time of my interview, but I was interested in DRNY’s work because I had spent some time in college working as a camp counselor for kids with disabilities. It was a summer job I loved and disability law was an area I was definitely interested in,” she said.
At DRNY, Mayer works exclusively with the Protection and Advocacy for People with Developmental Disabilities (PADD) Program. She provides P&A services and legal representation to clients with developmental and/or intellectual disabilities. Because of the needs of the population she serves, a significant amount of her time is spent attending to special education issues, especially those involving alleged complaints of abuse or neglect of students in residential settings, the unauthorized use of restraints, disputes over school placement recommendations, and the overreliance of discipline and suspension on students with disabilities.
“Regardless of the type of case I am working on, I am required to follow a series of priorities when deciding which clients to serve first. My first priority is to ensure the safety and protection of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in any state operated or funded facility by investigating allegations of abuse and neglect. After that I am to attend to a variety of legal matters. For example, in addition to my special education cases, I may take a case where something threatens to infringe upon a client’s right to freely exercise their express wishes or ability to make or retain decisions, or one where discrimination against a client on the grounds of disability has resulted in segregation of the client from their community or the inability of the client to obtain integrated employment. Working with a client does not always mean direct legal representation or litigation either. Often times I assist a client or a client and their advocate by providing technical assistance for self-advocacy. Other times, I negotiate with opposing counsel and school districts, especially in special education matters, to try and reach a negotiated settlement without having to take a matter to hearing. But when litigation can’t be avoided, I have that option as well,” Mayer explained.
But, representing clients isn’t Mayer’s only area of responsibility. As part of her job she is also responsible for leading projects that are designed to promote systemic change within the community and involve local stakeholders in DRNY’s mission at a state-wide level. Mayer sits on the Executive Council as a parent/student attorney for two Regional Special Education Task Forces that are part of the statewide New York State Special Education Task Force network, conducts monitoring visits of representative payees named by Social Security who manage social security benefits on behalf of intellectual and developmental disabilities, and leads DRNY’s efforts to extend P&A services to Native American territories in New York.
“My job is very spread out. Sometimes I’m trying to negotiate a settlement agreement, sometimes I may be in court, sometimes my job is to be more of an advocate and I’m working with school districts and parents to try to bridge that gap, or sometimes I’m helping to raise awareness in a community of a particular disability and discrimination. Other times we make contact with other agencies and organizations, like Social Security, to make sure there is no financial or other abuse going on. I wear a lot of different hats, but it’s all under this umbrella of making sure that individuals who have developmental disabilities or intellectual disabilities are safe from abuse and neglect and free to exercise their express wishes, all while living in the most inclusive environment possible” Mayer said.
While it’s challenging to know that her agency doesn’t have the manpower or resources to help every single individual who comes to them with a disability rights’ issue, she finds the work rewarding knowing that she is able to make a difference in the lives of those she is able to help.
As part of her studies at Moritz, Mayer took the Dispute System Design Workshop, where she and several fellow students were tasked with looking at the local CATCH Court program, a specialty court meant to help victims of human trafficking facing criminal charges for prostitution and related crimes, get their lives back on track. Their research turned into a judges’ bench book for developing specialized human trafficking and prostitution dockets, published by the Supreme Court of Ohio.
“It started out just looking at the CATCH Court and looking at how the docket, as a system, could maybe be improved upon, and then it grew from there,” she said. “We never expected it to become this project that we would be working on for literally a year after we graduated, but I think that all of us who were involved in it cared enough about it that it became what it ended up being.”
Giving a voice to those in underserved communities comes naturally to Mayer. Traveling through the Navajo reservations of Arizona and New Mexico as an undergraduate student, she was inspired by the work many Navajo advocates and policy makers were doing at the time to give a voice to their own people who lived on the lands in the face of the prejudices so many described.
“I had a chance to gain exposure to some of the injustices so many people face on a regular basis that others, including myself, often never see. Simply because it’s easy to not see what you don’t want to see. At the time I was an international studies major and I thought I was going to work in international development because I had heard about all of these injustices aboard, but I quickly realized there was a lot happening on our own soil that was unjust, that people right here ignore, and that really bothered me,” she explained.
That experience and the people she met inspired her to pursue her juris doctorate as a way to further help people whose rights were being violated, but whose voices were not being heard. “I looked at law as a way to make sure that those voices couldn’t be ignored. By having a legal education, I could go further with that work and use the law as a tool to make sure the peoples’ voices actually were heard,” she said.