by KATHLEEN O. BEITIKS
About 8,000 of California's attorneys identify themselves as having a disability, with more than three-fourths saying they do not request special accommodations primarily because they anticipate professional repercussions or adverse attitudes and treatment.
Those figures, from 1991 and 1993 State Bar surveys, have led to the development of a statewide pledge program asking lawyers, judges and law schools to support the spirit of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act within the legal community.
Gail Kaplan, a Santa Monica attorney who is chair of the bar's committee on legal professionals with disabilities, was a law student with multiple sclerosis who almost flunked out because she "didn't know how to be a disabled student" and hid her illness.
When it came time to take the bar exam, her request for special accommodations was ignored, resulting in complications that kept her ill for the next six months.
Although doctors advised her not to take the exam again, she persevered and took the test a year later. This time, the bar responded to her special request and in 1988 she was sworn in as a lawyer.
Ever since then, Kaplan has made it her mission to see that the legal community accommodates members of its profession with disabilities.
Kaplan and other members of the committee have been working for several years toward the goal of promoting full and equal participation of legal professionals with disabilities and chronic medical conditions.
The State Bar Board of Governors recently approved a policy and pledge program to enlist the legal community's support. Informational packets will be mailed to targeted law firms this month.
"This program is about visibility, education and acceptance," said Kaplan. "It is about law firms and encouraging the employment of people with disabilities."
The pledge program is a promotional tool toward that goal, she said, giving firms the opportunity to publicly acknowledge their commitment.
According to Kaplan, the bar's policy and pledge program is a "landmark" because no other state bar in the country has made a similar commitment.
Although the Americans with Disabilities Act and related laws forbid such discrimination, Kaplan and members of the committee recognize that legislation alone cannot overcome prejudices which equate disabilities with diminished competence.
"We hope that law firms will want to join with the State Bar and take a leadership role by making this public commitment," she said.
The four-year pledge program, which will eventually be expanded to the courts and law schools, will be kicked off on Friday, Sept. 6, in San Francisco.
At that event, law firms signing up with the pledge program by Aug. 15 will be recognized by the State Bar for their efforts and as "founding signatories."
For more information about the pledge program, contact Kaplan at 310/820-2900.