Battles for Rights of Physically Impaired : Disabled L.A. Lawyer Puts Herself on the Line
Diane Coleman is a lawyer who knows how to work within the system, but she is willing to go outside its bounds even to the point of being arrested.
Coleman, 35, of Los Angeles, is senior corporate counsel for the California Department of Corporations, one of about 20 lawyers in the department’s Enforcement Division responsible for protecting the public from corporate fraud.
Coleman is a child of the ‘60s and consumer protection was her second choice when she graduated in 1981 with a law degree and a masters in business administration from UCLA.
“I wanted to be a civil rights lawyer, but there were no jobs in the area when I started out,” she said.
Finds a New Issue
Coleman found her niche in consumer protection and had begun climbing the ladder to senior corporate counsel when she stumbled upon a new civil rights issue: the rights of the disabled.
The lawyer, disabled since birth and in a wheelchair, was asked five years ago to join the board of directors of an independent living center for the disabled.
There, she encountered disabled rights advocates and saw a videotape of a demonstration by disabled activists protesting the lack of wheelchair lifts on buses in Washington, D.C.
“I was raised in the ‘60s and saw a lot of civil rights movement and peace movement demonstrations, but it had never crossed my mind before that the disabled rights movement was like that,” she said.
Police Use Violence
The videotape showed police engaging in “physical violence” against disabled protesters, Coleman said.
“It had an effect of opening my eyes and changing my priorities,” she said.
In late 1985, Coleman attended a demonstration by the American Disabled for Accessible Public Transit (ADAPT).
In 1987, she decided to use vacation time and personal money to travel to Phoenix to participate in ADAPT’s first national demonstration. There, she was arrested twice and jailed overnight.
“That was the point of maximum change,” she said. “I had been attending a lot of meetings (advocating changes for the disabled) and getting a lot of lip service. Suddenly, in Phoenix I saw the impact and I was personally empowered by it.”
Keep Eye on Protesters
Coleman said the transit authority in Phoenix kept a close eye on the protesters, even planting electronic surveillance devices.
“They were scared to death of us,” Coleman said. “I couldn’t believe it. Two months after we left, the (bus company) made a commitment to equip all new buses with lifts.”
Since then, Coleman said, she has been arrested nine times at demonstrations by disabled activists working towards making public transportation systems accessible for them.
California, Michigan and Maine are the only states that require public transit systems to be accessible to the disabled.
“I am the only lawyer in the country getting arrested (at demonstrations for the disabled) and one of few professionals,” Coleman said.
Helps Start Chapter
After she attended the Phoenix demonstration, Coleman returned to Los Angeles to help start a local ADAPT chapter, with 60 active members and 400 on a mailing list.
Her work on behalf of the disabled is on her own time, apart from the work she does for the state Department of Corporations.
“They take it really well,” Coleman said of her employer’s attitude toward her activism.
The disabled rights movement is quietly growing, fueled by the success advocates have achieved through demonstrations, Coleman said.
Not ‘Full Human Beings’
“Historically, society hasn’t considered us full citizens, full human beings,” sho said. “Providing anything for our needs is considered charity. The process of being arrested is an upheaval to our social image.
“The demonstrations have an impact on the system and on ourselves.”
She has been thinking of using her legal skills to work within the system for disabled rights.
“I want to develop more knowledge about disability laws than I (have) now,” she said. “I’d like to handle a few cases, but it takes a lot of time and energy and doesn’t necessarily produce as many results.”