Episode 10 with J.J. Rico Transcript
Keith: Welcome to Disability Empowerment Now. I am your host Keith Murfee-DeConcini. I will be talking to Rico, the Executive Director of the Arizona Center for Disability Law.
Keith: J.J. Welcome to the podcast.
J.J.: Thank you so much, I am happy to be here.
Keith: A quick refresher, I met you at the College of Law when a very good mutual friend of ours, and mentor of yours I understand, Jovan Wheathercutter was on your board of trustees and I found out about Jovan because the College of Law did a piece on him; it was a part of an email blast. My dad Dino is an alumni of the College of Law and so he forwarded me that email and said this is someone that you should really meet and so I did and that is how we met.
J.J.: Right. Yeah, no, it’s kind of a small world, right. You know, so Jovan was right. I was in his first year, as a lawyer myself, you know, I signed up to be a mentor and he was my mentee.
I think I took him to lunch and then immediately said, “Hey, do you wanna join the Board of Directors?” Jovan is great like that as you know. So he joined our board and, you know, an amazing law student, he’s gonna make a great attorney. Then we met as well and so I’m happy that I left a memory and a good one.
Sometimes I’m not sure quite what I say that would get someone to call me back, but I appreciate it and happy again to be here and share, you know, a little bit more about myself and kind of what the Arizona Center for Disability Law does, but yeah, it’s small world how we all get connected, but I really appreciate being here and you remembering me.
Keith: Yeah. I mean, at the time I was the chair of the convention on disability issues for the City of Tucson and I was there scouting out Jovan for the convention and then I found out that he was already involved with the Arizona Center for Disability Law and their board and that sounded like a more full-time job and more worthy of his qualifications. And so getting into the interview, of course I know you and a bit about the Arizona Center of Disability Law, but for the listeners who don’t know much or know anything at all, please tell us more about what the Arizona Center of Disability Law does.
J.J.: Yeah, no the Arizona Center for Disability Law is part of the protection and advocacy system, in the United States.
So there is literally an office like ours in every state and territory. Some folks, when they hear protection advocacy, they may think like child protective services or adult protective services, actually we were federally created in statute, to basically investigate, monitor, and get rid of abuse and neglect, for people with disabilities who are living in facilities and the program started about 40 years ago.
So the Arizona Center for Disability Law is one of those PNAs as we call ourselves. So we have this historic mandate, to make sure that people who are even living in the community, people might be living in group homes, people who are trying to get employed are free from discrimination, abuse, and neglect.
There’s a long way to go, but we’re here to do that good work.
So we’re a nonprofit law firm that only represents people with disabilities. So sometimes when people hear nonprofit law firms, they think of legal aid. So I’ll compare us to legal aid in that we are free. So our services are free.
The differences are that we, again, just represent someone with a qualifying disability that qualifies for one of our federal programs and we also can do class action litigation, which the legal aid society cannot do, and then we also have related to our abuse and neglect work, something called access authority.
So what that access authority is, is our ability to go to a group home, go to the state hospital, literally knock on the door, say we’re with the Arizona Center for Disability Law and walk around, you know, talk to residents, ask to look at records, again, just ensuring that someone is safe and living in, the best situation possible for them.
So that’s kind of how we’re distinct from a legal aid society. Obviously there’s numbers, thousands of calls that we ask for services every year and our number one request for services is in the special education area. Then healthcare comes in number two, and that could be health, general healthcare, mental healthcare.
Then we also probably third, sometimes, usually around employment questions. So reasonable accommodations, discrimination and hiring, you know, discrimination at different access to benefits. Maybe someone might need an interpreter for a meeting and that employer denies that. So if you think generally about the Americans with Disabilities Act, we’re enforcing that law, forcing the Rehab Act, Medicaid Law.
So any laws that really apply to people with disabilities, we’re trying to enforce, sometimes expand if they do need expansion to make sure that folks are getting the adequate necessary services for them. So again, a lot of work still to be done, as I said but again, I’ve worked here at the center for 20 years.
And so my background is, I did go to the U of a Law School graduated 20 years ago, hard to believe, started out as a staff attorney with ACDL. Managing attorney, probably about four or five years after that, focusing then I’ve shifted from employment to title two and title three of the ADA, and then became the legal director.
About seven years ago, I was hired to be the Executive Director so again, 20 years of a lot of work. I haven’t regretted a day of it. It’s really been a rewarding experience that I would encourage anybody, any listeners out there that want to do some research you can look us up, you know, at AZDisabilityLaw.org you can go to our national website, which is NDRN.org, and look for the PNA in your state.
See what I’m talking about, there’s a ton of resources on our website. A lot of the other PNAs have a ton of resources, videos, materials. Again I’m a law nerd, so I like that type of information, but I think there’s a lot of benefits for the community, empowering themselves through those education tools as well.
So that’s probably ACDL and a nutshell and a little bit more than maybe you didn’t ask for.
Keith: No, that’s so wonderful. You answered like the next three questions I was about to ask. You mentioned that you are a law nerd which certainly sounds like it from over 20 years on the job. Tell me what inspired or motivated the lawyer itch of wanting to study law? Did you always know that you wanted to study law? Or did it happen gradually in your late teenage years, I don’t know. I don’t really hear the term law nerd so I am like that is genius.
J.J.: Well I haven’t trademarked it or copyrighted it so use it all you want, and maybe I’m not as big a law nerd, you know, some might be out there, but I say it because probably my mom or my dad would say, Hey, you’re gonna be a lawyer from early cuz I argued probably everything, even if I didn’t have to argue something. So that was probably the first thing. Some teachers probably also thought I could use all that energy and all this talking to some benefits.
Then I was also raised, my mother was a civil rights, you know, kind of activist in the county movement in the sixties and seventies. So raised me with this mindset of that you have to do something with your education that helps others and that empowers others that may need access to justice, or that has been denied access for some reason.
So as an undergraduate, you know, I focused on political science and Mexican American Studies and focused a lot on civil rights and communities that were not included in systems like education and other things where we take for granted voting rights. So as I went through undergrad, Political Science, you really can’t do much with that degree just as a bachelor’s.
So I think I knew law school probably was on the horizon and I did pretty well on the LSAT. I was involved in student government, so I thought at some point maybe I’d wanna do politics, but happy that I haven’t dipped my toe in that yet and so I went to law school. I did not have a focus just on Disability Law, but I did continue to take civil rights law and employment law, and constitutional law.
A lot of the foundations for what we practice now in the areas of law and so that continued to be my interest. I mean, I can just tell a quick story about kind of where my mind went versus maybe other law students. So we were doing civil procedure, which is just these rules about how to either get into court or how to make a certain type of case.
And we were focusing on the requirements to establish a class action, and it’s a little boring, right? You have to have numerosity, you have to have a size of a party, all these other things that are kind of important, obviously they’re rules so they’re important. What I wanted to focus on was the factual part of the case, which was this class of individuals, of African Americans who were precluded from living where they wanted to.
So there were these covenants that said blacks could not live in this community or could not buy this house. So I really wanted to dive in there and the teacher professor had to keep kind of getting me to the rule as opposed to the facts and so I think I really gravitated to the people part of law.
Sometimes lawyers get a bad rep. Obviously there’s a lot of bad jokes out there, but at the heart of it, I mean, if you talk about some of the good terms for lawyers, when you hear a counselor, we’re not therapists, but we most definitely have to counsel, mediate matters and intervene.
So those were all things that I wanted to get out of a law degree and so it was a little different, you know, I didn’t go in there to get rich. I didn’t go in there to, you know, work in a big, you know, tower building. So as I went through the jobs kind of got more narrow, so I was either gonna be a Public Defender or a Civil Rights Attorney. Those were kind of my focuses and as it lucked out this position was open upon graduation and I was lucky enough to be given the job and it, I really think it was meant to be and I’ll pause there cuz you might have some questions, that might be a follow up. So yeah, that’s how I got into it.
If that makes me a law nerd then I am one, but I really like to use law for the good and also dispel some of those bad jokes.
Keith: Absolutely. So did I hear you correctly? What job exactly became available to you right out of law school.
J.J.: Yeah. So the Arizona Center for Disability Law, who I work for now, had a staff attorney position. So to give you a little background, it was focused on employment, uh, because the center for disability law had just sued Walmart. And as an outcome of that lawsuit, there was some attorneys fees and also a monitoring requirement that Walmart comply with the settlement terms.
And it was a recommendation, at least as my understanding now of a board member, that the center should hire a young attorney to do that work and then also to help in the employment area. And, and so that’s what I applied for. Um, in all honesty, you know, when they asked me, did you take disability law?
I did not. So I said, no, I haven’t and as they pushed me on questions, you know, about my connections and to disability. You know, I like many others had a personal connection through family, so it opened my eyes to access issues. You know, having a grandfather in a wheelchair who had trouble getting in and out of buildings because of inaccessible restaurants.
You know, he was also discriminated against because he couldn’t effectively speak due to his disability, so sometimes people would talk around him, even though his mind was totally there. Sometimes I was advocating or negotiating car deals because the car dealer didn’t think he could understand.
So he prepped me at 16, 17 to buy a car for him because they weren’t gonna take time to listen to him and I had parents, both parents on disability with different forms, you know, war veteran and someone else who had an accident that led to a disability. So I was exposed to Disability Law through personal experience, not necessarily through books.
But as we all know, sometimes learning that way can teach you a lot more than just what’s in the textbook as I did that, you know, I used that as an example, and I guess it got me the job.
Then as it turns out 15 years ago, I also now have a child with a disability. So I really think it was meant to be, you know, again, it’s not only a professional passion now, but it’s also a personal mission to make sure that the disability rights movement is inclusive and expands and then there’s no quest, universal accessibility is my end goal by the time I die on this earth I will get some universal accessibility requirements out there so we don’t have to retrofit anything.
Keith: That’s quite an end goal but a lovely one indeed. Well that is quite a background story of your life and your intersections with disability and what led you to study disability law. When you became a parent of a child with a disability, where were you in life and how did learning about your child’s disability and embracing the disability and adapting the family dynamic to the disability, how did that very personal connection shape your ongoing work? Talk about that in more detail.
J.J.: Yeah no, that’s another good question and loaded question and it’s, you know, I don’t know if I’ve ever really been asked that way but I do think it’s changed me. I mean it was 15 years ago.
You know, as I just said, he’s a Valentine’s baby, so he just had his 15th birthday a couple months ago and he has an older brother so I think it changed my view on just your child. You know, I think a lot of parents go out thinking their child’s gonna be, you know, whatever it might be, you know, the super athlete or the, you know, the superstar at school and, and you don’t necessarily control that, you know, you can raise your child and love your child regardless of what happens, but they’re, they are unique.
They are going to challenge you, with, or without a disability, but I think my son with a disability taught me patience. Like I’m still not a very patient person, but I’m much more patient.
And I think I’ve also learned to appreciate things. I’ll just be honest I think some parents take for granted the ability to walk, you know, without aids or ability to talk clearly, you know, the ability for someone to not have an assumption based on your looks or your abilities.
So really it allowed me to focus on, you know, what I have, you know, again, it’s two sons, very different, but most definitely two unique beings that challenge me, test my patience. So again, having a childhood disability to get to some more of your points of your question, exposes you to an immediate, so it wasn’t a case anymore.
It wasn’t a client telling me, oh, I was treated differently because of my disability. I could see it. Right. I could go to an IEP meeting and see the challenges that some of my clients were facing. You know, and trying to get access to services or inclusion, you know, getting my son with the disability to play T-ball, you know, you know, kind of the challenges of saying he can play tee ball he just needs, you know, little assistance here.
So you’re not only a parent, but you’re also an advocate. But it also became difficult too, to know what might lie ahead and even that today, because again, as a lawyer representing people with disabilities, who’ve been discriminated against abused or neglected. You see the worst of the worst. So as a parent, you never want your kid to be harmed or hurt, but you also know you have to give them the opportunity to, to succeed and fail, even in light of maybe what you know.
So it makes it a challenge because I do know some bad things that exist out there, but I also have to assume that not everybody is bad, not all systems are bad. We’ve been really lucky and blessed that he’s had a really good school experience compared to a lot of the clients that come through our doors.
The inclusion model is not a requirement under the law, but it’s something that school districts have to choose to do and for the most part that’s been offered to him. So he’s really benefited from that because he’s probably more like his dad who likes to be social and be with his peers.And so that’s really helped.
So I think we’ve learned a lot you know, and kind of, I have to take off my lawyer hat sometimes. When I have conversations with my wife, you know, it’s more of like a parent as opposed to, oh well the law says this, and it’s hard to shut that off sometimes.
Then there’s other times where I do have to put my law hat on and. You know, kind of throw my lawyer around a little bit where it’s my son, right. They have to know that their dad knows a little something about these laws and that he’s gonna advocate for him as well. So it’s been an interesting ride for sure.
Um, but again, like I said, I think both of my boys have taught me patience and, you know, appreciation for what they are and who they are, more than anything, and I think a lot of parents will say that, but I also don’t think, you know, parents that have children with disabilities probably learn that even more, because again, you appreciate milestones because from day one, you’re told about milestones that they may not achieve or milestones that are gonna be difficult and so you’re given this kind of prognosis from day one of what could be.
So you celebrate those times where you achieve those things or you, you realize you may not meet it quite the way they’re describing, but if you can still get access, you know, something, you know, like again, if my son’s not running a 5k, but he can walk, you know, safely from the front door to the car, to his classroom, those are big accomplishments, you know, where maybe another parents, you know, wanting their kid to run a marathon.
I just want my kid to walk safely and not have to fall and, you know, pick himself up from the ground because he, you know, didn’t look down or something like that. So again, it makes you appreciate things differently. Again, it’s been a really rewarding experience for me as a person.
Then as a professional, I’m able to share some of these stories that people can kind of relate to. You know they might hear something today that they’re like, oh yeah, I remember that whether they be a person with a disability or a parent there’s a lot of commonalities and connections in intersections in the community.
Keith: Yeah, this is exactly why I asked questions like this, like I just asked you because I love hearing the personal connections and the personal stories of disability and how that plays out and how that continues to play out in professional circles and personal circles. Those stories are very meaningful and need to be heard. So you said at the beginning that the Arizona Center for Disability Law is not unique in the sense that there is a center for Disability Law in every state and every territory in the country , something I am just learning myself, but that is also not surprising that they are in every state and territory. Tell me is there a lot of cross talk and collaboration in the Arizona Center of Disability Law and its colleagues?
J.J.: Yes. I mean the immediate answer is yes there is. I mean because we were established the same way, we received the same funding. Obviously different levels of funding. So the bigger states have a lot more money because of the formula grants that we receive. The smaller states, you know, are called minimum allotment states, which receive just a, kind of a flat amount of money regardless of their size.
So in terms of the meat of your question, we collaborate a lot because the disability experience crosses state lines.
Sometimes it’s a little different, right? You know, maybe what’s happening in Arizona might be a little different, you know, we are in Arizona, there’s a lot of more home community based services, where people are living more in community based type arrangements, where there are other states who still have a lot of institutions.
And so our advocacy may be more in a group home setting those in the living, in the community, trying to access employment and some of those other states that have a high institutional rates or populations, they may be looking to either close down those institutions, cuz they’re not adequately serving their disability.
The people living there might be more community based service that they could benefit from. So the focus may be a little different, but a lot of the same cases, plus it’s good to always talk to a colleague and you know, who’s done it before you, right? So in Arizona, sometimes we’re not the first to tackle a legal issue.
So we could benefit from a colleague who’s filed a similar case or we’re in the ninth circuit. And so we could talk to our ninth circuit peers and see if they’re bringing a case that we’ve thought about, or if they brought a case, right? And it’s going to the ninth circuit and they may need an Amicus brief, which is like a brief, a friendly brief saying, this is a good case for these reasons, or this is how it impacts the disability community in Arizona, or, you know, kind of bring points to help others cases as well. So there is a lot of collaboration there, a lot of collaboration, obviously in the management of our agencies, because we wanna hire good staff. We wanna hire people with disabilities so we can learn that way also, not just on the day to day work, but how are we managing, how are we able to retain staff, recruit staff with disabilities so that they can work, you know, in, in our agencies?
So there’s many different ways that we collaborate. I would say we collaborate on a daily basis, and some of my peers that I collaborate most might be on the other side of the country, but they have some similar, you know, some similar struggles or some similar stories that I really reach out to them for.
There could be some right next door, California is right next door but sometimes I don’t always reach out to California because California’s so much larger than us. So just like a quick example. So we have approximately 35 to 40 staff, you know, in any given year. They have about 200 staff members.
So, and their budget, you know, our budget’s, you know, about $3 million of federal funding. Theirs is about $20 million again, rounding, generously, but that’s a big difference. So sometimes asking them that they’re helpful but their amount of money, their amount of staff and that those type issues may not be relevant to some questions I might benefit from somebody who’s closer to our size.
So I think we’re collaborating, like I said, on a daily basis, and I really appreciate my colleagues out there, and so if any of your listeners are from other states, most of the agencies that are in other states go by disability rights and then the state name, we’re obviously a little different than that.
But again, if you look up on our national website, there is an ability to kind of click on a link for your state and you’ll get the contact information, to find your PNA, in your state or territory.
Keith: So, yeah, I wanted to follow up on that. What you just said about the Arizona Center for Disability while its name being different from most of its sister agencies, why is that, how long has that been the case, who decided that the Arizona Center for Disability Law would really buck the trend of the naming of the organization?
J.J.: Yeah. So, um, yeah, we didn’t, we didn’t buck the trend. We actually gave you real quick background history, especially if you have Arizona listeners.
We were originally the Arizona Center for Law and the public interest and so they still exist. They’re still a law firm out there and they do impact litigation doing great work. Danny Adelman is their Executive Director and so the history that’s been told to me, because I haven’t been around 40 years.
I’ve been around 20 years. As the protection and advocacy side grew and also the center for law and the public interest focus kind of went to the impact of environmental litigation at that time, the board of directors decided that there should be a protection and advocacy agency and then there should still continue to be the Arizona center for law and the public interest.
And so that passed through, that board of directors, and so they created the Arizona Center for Disability Law about 30 years ago, probably about 20 were on no, actually were going on. Gosh, don’t hold me to that. But many, many years ago we branched off and so we became the Arizona Center for Disability Law, and many of the PNAs around the country at that time were the Michigan protection and advocacy system and so a lot of the states were called the state name and the protection and advocacy system.
Even our national office was called the national association for the protection advocacy systems. So what happened actually was about, gosh, maybe seven years ago, maybe a few more years after that, maybe 10, the national office changed their name to the National Disability Rights Network, and they encouraged a lot of states to change their name, to disability rights in the state’s name, so that there was more uniformity and also to my point earlier in your first question, we don’t get confused with a protection and advocacy system in the state, right?
Like child protective services or adult protective services. So they also knew more that we were into disability rights. We’re a law firm. And so we might be late to the disability rights, like the Arizona game.
But we were early to the game on having law in our name. So we’re not, it’s an internal kind of debate of changing your name, but when people talk about our name, it’s not as difficult to know who we are compared to some of the others who may have either a name that has nothing about law in their name, or, some of them still are called either the state or territory name and the protection and advocacy system.
So a loaded question and maybe more information than you wanted to know, but we at the center for disability all have considered it, but again, because we have law and disability in our name, we feel people continue to know generally who we are. We’re not opposed to possibly changing our name, especially as we get closer.
I don’t know the exact count right now, but we’re probably in the forties, uh, in terms of 40 out of 57, again, don’t hold me to those numbers, but those are now disability rights in their state name and then the national office is now the National Disability Rights Network.
Keith: So taking you back to 20 years ago, when you first joined the center staff lawyer, did you ever have any inkling or desire to be where you are now with the center? Or was it just like you just got out of law school, this is your first job and at that time, if you can remember 20 years ago, was your first job just like a stepping stone to something greater down the road? I don’t know that is just what I assume that is what most law graduates feel like. But again I don’t know and so I would be interested if you can trace that journey from 20 years ago to now. Did you have any idea that you would still be with the center and now be effectively running the center?
J.J. : Yeah. 20 years ago, I would probably say no. I mean, again, it was a job. You need a job right after you get outta law school. Did I think I was gonna leave in two years or stay here for 20? No, I think I really was just like, what was right there was a good job opportunity. As I started doing it though, I really got bitten by the bug.
I mean, there were some really impactful cases that I worked with, Rose de la Rooney, who’s our legal director. Then she was my supervisor, gave me a lot of great opportunities to work with her on cases and you could really see the impact that law was making. So that really inspired me to keep doing the job.
You know, then I had a family and my older son would ask me questions about the job, and so it made me really kind of proud of the work I was doing, and especially knowing kind of what my other classmates might have been doing. Just didn’t seem to be as rewarding as my experience. So I really didn’t have a desire to be the executive director early on, because I was just really developing my legal skills.
I think as a lawyer, It’s usually not talked about either. You usually don’t go to law school to be the director of an agency or a CEO or those things, but I didn’t really know that even to be an option with the law degree, like I said earlier, I’ve always been in leadership roles and in those things.
And so as opportunities came to be a member of management, you know, most definitely signed up for those because I wanted added responsibility and I wanted those, you know, kind of opportunities to manage, not only people, but programs and, and so it kind of grew as time went on and then as I shared earlier, you know, having a child, you know, five years into my legal career made me think this is a place I need to stay because now it’s also a personal pursuit.
I give credit to the ACDL because they really allowed me to have work life balance before it was a, even a phrase. Right. I was able to spend time with both of them following the birth of both of my sons. I was given a lot of opportunities. I said with cases, training opportunities to go to our national conferences, both program side finance side.
I really appreciate the opportunities I was given, and if I wasn’t given those, you know, would I have gone somewhere else? Maybe? Did I apply to other places through my 20 years? Yeah, I’ll be honest. Sure. I looked at other places, but they all came when I came back and looked at it, really looking at the life that I had, which was, you know, a father of two, you know, married, wanting to stay married and stay, and stay in Tucson where I live.
Uh, ACDL just always was the right choice. And I’m really happy, you know, and again, not a lot of folks stay at a place for 20 years and so it kind of makes me proud too, that I’ve invested so much time and energy into a great organization. Although I have the executive director title, I am just, you know, a steward of the great work of the staff attorneys and the advocates and making sure that they get the spotlight that they deserve because they’re the ones fighting the fights.
I just happen to be managing the organization to make sure that they can do that without having to worry about the things that I have to worry about. So, yeah, again, a long winded answer to probably a more straightforward question, but I didn’t think 20 years ago I’d be executive director. Now that I am, I’m very happy to serve in that role.
It’s an honor that the board of directors has bestowed upon me and continues to honor me by renewing, I don’t have a contract, but they keep giving me they’re evaluations and saying that I’m doing a good job or telling me what I need to do more of. So I really appreciate my current bosses.
Uh, they’ll be my one bad joke of the day. You know, people say, oh, well, you’re the Executive Director. How is it to be the boss? And I said, well, actually I have 15 bosses and they’re called the Board of Directors and so I really appreciate them because they’re all volunteers, but they’re also part of ACDL for a reason and their commitment to Disability Law and what we do at ACDL.
20 years later, I’m happy to be here, but I did not think I would be here if you asked me J.J., 20 years ago. I don’t think he would’ve said, oh yeah, I’m gonna be the Executive Director one of these days.
Keith: Yeah. Thank you for that personal anecdote. Uh, I’ll follow up with one of mine, and I am not sure if I should say this but I am going to anyway. I reached out to your first supervisor Rosa. She handles the board memberships right?
J.J.: Oh, I, I think you, I know who you’re talking about, you probably you reached, if you’re talking about board Natalie Luna Rose is our communication and outreach staff person.
Keith: Yes, so I reached out to her and sent her my resume. I don’t want to say for fun but I mean there is definitely interest in one day serving on the board because I have always been fascinated with a whole entity focused on one particular set of laws and I mean when I heard you and Jovan announce the Arizona Center for Disability Law I was very intrigued by that because I had no idea, none whatsoever, that there were center that focused on that kind of advocacy, I thought surely that would have been a niche department in a bigger law firm or law agency, but to hear and discover that there was a center for disability law yes your main office in in phoenix, but you have a tucson office here. That was very intriguing for me, so I reached out to the board just to get my name out there. But that has nothing to do with why I am interviewing you, that was just an antidote I thought I would share. Our mutual friend Jovan who is not only a very close friend of mine, he was actually the first episode of the season of disability empowerment now, and you my friend, you closed the first ten episode season and I thought it was very fitting to do that because it is an arch of a circle, I am mixing metaphors, I am a bit tired at the moment. But that is really why I am interviewing you. And when I found out that you were a parent with a child with a disability, that also peaked my interest. You would have peaked my interest regardless of having a child with a disability, but that personal connection is always so gratifying to hear about and that is why I keep bringing it up whenever I can with other parent advocates because you can hear it in their voices how it motivated them to keep going forward and has motivated their work throughout the time they first became parents of a child with disability. To see the personal inform the professional and the professional inform the personal is very intriguing to me. I am a very curious person, sometimes too curious, but with this job I am doing, I get to ask the questions and I get to shine the spotlight and let my guests talk over the interview and I wouldn’t have it any other way because I like to highlight people that you may not of heard of before doing such great work. You are certainly one and I thank the Law College and my dad for sending me that profile on Jovan because I really don’t know how I would have met either of you if it wasn’t for that email that I got from my dad who was an alumni of the same college. So that’s why I am really interviewing you, it has nothing at all to do with me wanting to join the board or really to just find out more deeply about the Arizona Center for Disability Law.
Yes you guys have a very impressive website that is very detailed, but I am a very curious person, and I like to get deep down in the weeds so to speak, that is a weird phrase to use in an interview, but that is the reason. It all goes back to being very attracted to the name Arizona Center of Disability Law. If you are not a lawyer or a law nerd or have any personal first hand or second hand or third hand knowledge you would hear a title of an organization like that and it certainly peaked my interest and I hope I am not the only one who gets peak in terms of the name, because it is a very interesting name and it deserves to be recognized alongside its sister organizations because you guys do phenomenal work. I have been talking for quite longer than I originally planned.
But getting back to the center, how many cases, in a calendar year or a fiscal year, do you guys get and then you can’t take all those cases so how do you knock those cases down to a feasible number? Then how many cases a year on average does the center actually take on?
J.J.: Yeah, so that’s a good question.
I’ll quickly comment again, I know that you’ve applied to the board right now. We didn’t have an opening originally. We do have one now, so yours and anybody else who wants to go out there and apply for our board is encouraged to do that because we do have one opening so I just put that plug in there.
Then I would say to answer your question, we receive about 1500 service requests, which means people asking for representation, everyone, if it fits within our goals, areas of focus or priorities as the federal government calls it. So to answer part of your question and go back to the number that we actually assist, we have to develop these annual goals of what we want to accomplish within our federal programs.
We put that out to the federal government and say with your money, essentially, this is what we wanna do. This is the type of case we wanna do. That process to develop that list process with the board of directors, with our staff, what cases they’re seeing and then also maybe what we know is going on in Arizona like this year, two years now, we’re dealing with the pandemic so we have a broader goal that incorporates access during a pandemic.
So as calls come in, or as we’re considering cases, it’s with that lens, right? So we’re trying to say these were the goals, areas of focus we’ve set for the year. So when we hear that case come through our phone lines or through our web intake form or through someone calling us and telling us, “hey, this group home is doing this over here.”
You have to match those things up and so that whittles that 1500 numbers down to, I would say maybe about 300 now.
Sounds like a lot of cases because I think a lot of people imagine law in terms of the 30 minute law and order program where you’re filing a case and then 30 minutes later, you’re through a trial.
Those 300 cases can range from giving detailed advice information from a lawyer and all the way up to maybe one of those lawsuits and no lawsuit is only 30 minutes. Lawsuits take a long time and a lot of money in usually multiple years, but I would say that an assigned case reaches the hands of an advocate or attorney 300 times a year, but I would say of those 1500 that come in and of that maybe a thousand, maybe a little more than that, maybe 1200 are actually things that we could do, but just might not be in those areas of focus. Or when they’ve given a call, we don’t have an attorney or an advocate to assign what we do and not all the PNAS do this, is give a very detailed letter that relates to that topic. So if they’re calling about employment and needing reasonable accommodation, they’re gonna get a letter about employment law. What that is, what the law is about reasonable accommodation and maybe a link or a copy of one of our guides of how to request a reasonable accommodation.
So most folks don’t walk away, completely empty handed. Now I’ll be honest. Are people happy that sometimes we tell ’em? No, no, but we feel that at least we’re still giving them service because they now have a self-advocacy item that they can utilize and to be completely honest, you know, I might be a law nerd, but I’m a lawyer.
So when a lawyer gets involved in a case, the honest truth is it slows down. I mean, I think people have a misconception that if a lawyer gets involved, suddenly thinks speed up and the other party just says, okay, I’ll do whatever you want. Does that happen occasionally? Yes. But occasionally more times than not the other side gets an attorney than the attorney, instead of just looking at it and saying, yeah, your analysis is right.
Of course they want to argue their point and on behalf of their client. So they’re gonna say, no, your argument is not right or no, my client can’t do it because of this reason and so sometimes that self-advocacy letter and materials is a more effective way to get a quicker solution. Then having an attorney assigned to your case.
So a little bit more than you, you asked for in your question, but I would say we average a few hundred cases. Again, like I said, that could be a range of services. We don’t have, you know, near any, you know, we have one current active lawsuit going on right now because again, lawsuits take a lot of time, a lot of staff, a lot of resources, most of the time we’re trying to resolve things.
A lot of our federal grants require this, that we resolve things short of litigation. You’re supposed to try different levels of advocacy to try to resolve a legal matter, or legal issue and that’s what we do.
Keith: No, that detail is exactly where I would’ve wanted you to go anyway, so great minds think alike. So visiting the next five to 10 years of the Arizona Center for Disability Law, and hopefully you’re not thinking of retiring anytime soon, but tell me about your hopes for the next five to 10 years for the center. You’ve talked a lot about the Center’s strengths. Are there any more strengths that you haven’t mentioned, but also equally importantly, is there any room for growth, any room for improvement that you as the executive director and the board of trustees that oversees the center will like to see the center take a more proactive role in, I mean you very astutely said that the large two years in particular have thrown everyone of ball because we are still in the middle of a global pandemic, and so that has had to make everyone shift their focus in terms of how they operate. So getting back to my original question, where would you hope to see the center in five to 10 years and what are some areas of growth for the center?
J.J. : Good question again and, and gives me some time to reflect on kind of where I would like to see us go and you expanded it to 10. So when you expand to 10, there may be an opportunity for me to step away, and let someone else lead this great organization and take some new, fresh ideas into a new direction.
Maybe closer to that, that 10 mark but within five years I really right now, I mean, again, I know you’re just interviewing me, but as I run through who we have on staff, we have a really nice group of advocates and attorneys and, and I can see them working a long time for ACDL. I joke, you know, that, you know, “hey, I’ve been here 20 years, you’ve gotta sign a 10 year contract.”
It is harder now to retain staff, as we know, as a result of the pandemic we’re talking about, we’ve seen this mass, you know, resignation, I think they’ve phrased it. So to retain this good staff is gonna be focus number one, right? I wanna make ACDL the place they wanna work. I mentioned why I’ve stayed here so long.
I want that environment to exist so that folks can feel like, “hey, I can have my personal life and my employment and they both can be together and I can feel I’m being rewarded for great work, great colleagues, etc.” So within the next couple years, I just want to continue to grow that, and so that I can really have those new staff members establish roots here and see ACDLs a long term place for them to work.
So we don’t have to deal with the resignation and turnover and training and finding, you know, I would really want to in the next couple years say, this is ACDL. This is your organization. Maybe we will grow by one or two, or maybe we’ll lose one person because of retirement but our nucleus is here and this is gonna lead us to the future. So then, you know, within five years, or even within this zero to five, I told you about our roots. So our roots are a monitoring investigation. In Arizona we are a home and communities model, as I said earlier and I think some people lose focus because you’re a home and communities bottle that you don’t have abuse and neglect in your home and community based systems.
And you do it’s just different places. It’s not in the old brick and mortar institutions that you would see on a bad Hollywood movie depicting mental health institutions, or in reality, some of our, you know, facilities that still exist in Arizona, I would like to publish some reports so people in the community can know the current living conditions of people with disabilities to know that it’s not all perfect.
There might be some positives there, but these reports usually are an expose and that’s the root of how we were started to show the community that there’s still a lot of work to be done that people with disabilities are still living in unhealthy conditions that don’t maximize their potential and so I would like to release some reports so the community can pause and really think about, is this what we want for this disability community? Or can we do better? And the answer should be, we can do better. And so that would be something I would really like to do within the next couple years. I also think that again, our systems are setting themselves up in great ways to say, you’re a person with a disability you’ve qualified for these services.
Here’s your plan of services to maximize again, your potential, your care, your therapies, but where we’re failing is we don’t have the providers to give those services. Our rural communities in Arizona are even woefully more, deficient in terms of, adequate network issues and so there’s two prongs there.
There’s one to make sure the state knows that it’s not just about approving a plan saying someone qualifies, but it’s about enforcing that and making sure that those services are delivered because just saying, “hey, you got a plan” is not enough so we gotta push the state on that. Then two, you know, the legislature also has to make an investment because the state is going to understand that it’s a legal requirement.
So they’re gonna have to go to their counterparts at the house and Senate in the governor’s office and we need you to invest more money and resources into these legally required programs. Now, we’re gonna continue hearing from the Center for Disability Law or the disability community and how we’re failing the community and we’re also maybe failing to comply with the law and the legal requirements, and then I would say probably one of my other goals is I’m currently on the National Board of Directors for our national office.
I’m currently the president and I would like to see to one of your questions earlier, the PNAS throughout the state’s work more collaboratively on enforcement type lawsuits or cases that are systemically filed.
Certain dates, certain anniversaries of the disability community messaging to show the strength of the network. You know, it isn’t just in Arizona or isn’t just in the big states so that we who do have similar challenges and issues bring similar actions and use that resource and also use what nowadays, like you’re using, you’re using a platform to message people, and people are listening to podcasts, they are listening to social media. We need to be more effective on a national level, and so I think with collaboration with our national office, it’s better coordination amongst us states.
I think we really could push the disability movement where it should go. I mean, it’s one of those movements that intersect all areas.
That would be kind of the last thing is to really, really push that disability is not just this little side class of people. It is the largest minority group out there and it’s part of every walk of life that we can think about. You know, I was in training one time where somebody said, I’ll give you a hundred dollars if you can think of one issue or one topic that doesn’t involve or relate to disability and no one could, because disability does intersect in all areas of life.
So I really want that message to, you know, for us to intersect with communities of different backgrounds and not just say, “hey, we’re this community” and it intersects, we just talk about it differently, you know?
So we may call it something different. We may not have seen that voting rights are impacted for one community just as impacted, just different access points to the ballot box are being affected. So I think I’ll just get off my soapbox with that last note: voting right now is being targeted, right?
I mean, voting is under attack. That is a right, that we all, you know, who have the requisite requirements to register, to vote. We’re now being closed off from the ballot box. People with disabilities are being closed off from ballot boxes. People, minority backgrounds are, you know, having hurdles to jump over, to get, you know, abilities to vote.
So I think we really can come together as multiple communities on a voting issue or on education. So that’s my last point on that.
Keith: I agree with everything you just said, and your hopes for the center look very very bright. I extended it to ten years just in case we went over the five-year mark. Wrapping up the interview and thank you so much for closing up the first season of disability empowerment now with me.
So the last question I would like to end on is some takeaways. So you’re a parent advocate, but what would be your advice to self advocates like me just starting out and are interested in disability law, what would be your recommendation for them and how they would be able to maximize their knowledge base of disability law? Because without the Americans with Disability Act, I wouldn’t be here.
At all. It has paved the way for my education, K-12, college, multiple graduate schools, and I am not saying that to brag, I am just saying because of one law passed in the early 90s and like laws passed either before or after said law, I mean that’s disability law right there. And so for any self advocates who are just starting out in this field and want to know more about how to utilize disability law, what would be some of your recommendations?
J.J.: Yeah, I think the self advocate movement is essential. You know, again, I’m a parent of a child with a disability, but not a person with a disability.
So I can go out there and speak about disability, both from the legal side and also as a parent, but I still don’t have that personal experience, which has a lot of weight and that voice needs to be heard. So I would say to the self advocates out there is to learn how to get involved and that’s very broad, right.
But in anything and everything, not just disability related issues, because I think that’s way too narrow. Um, you know, the disability mantra I think continues to be and should forever be nothing about us without us and so to my point earlier that I may not have made really clear is that people and the disability issues are in every walk of life.
So if your personal passion is housing, it does not have to be disability housing it should be housing generally. But you need to be involved with that and you have to be a little rude and so, uh, make some good trouble. I think as someone else famously said, too, right. So be rude in terms of inviting yourself because you don’t always get invitations to join a board or you don’t always, you know, get, “hey, what’s your opinion,” you know?
And so learning those processes to be involved. So things like the ability to speak at the legislature, learning, you know, what that means to be put on that list and what do you say during that time, and there’s some kind of etiquette to, you know, do that, but to be forthright with your story and with who you are and your experience, because that cannot be questioned.
You know, when we have testimony at the legislature, they can fight with me as a lawyer because they may say that law is bad, or I don’t agree with that law, but if you’ve lived in an experience, they can’t question that because that’s your experience. They, they, most of the time, sit there and thank you for your time and are impacted by that because they see that the law you’re speaking on or the issue you’re speaking on impacts your life, or has impacted your life.
So that, to your last point of this law’s open doors, literally and so we can’t forget that and so the law still is under attack. There are still bad laws out there being either pushed or cases that are being brought to narrow the effect of the ADA. So we have to also challenge those. And so that’s another way self advocates can be involved is to be clients, you know, is to be willing to put their name out there and their story out there on lawsuits.
So really kind of the root is to be involved, but not to limit your involvement. So it can be from, you know, you talked about CODI earlier on, you know, Commission on Disability Issues. Very important. You know, again, I’m not gonna say that’s bad because it’s focused on disability issues, but again, if you also wanted to be on the city’s water, or transportation issue, let’s talk.
Transportation, transportation and accessible transportation has to be improved. I mean, that could also be something that I wanna achieve in zero to five years and so the voice of a person with a disability and their experiences with public transportation needs to be heard because to get from a curb to onto a bus or from an inaccessible, a sidewalk onto a bus, you know, those are things that people don’t envision, they think, oh, I’ve erected a bus stop, or I have a bus, so you should just be able to get on the bus.
Right? So a little rambling here, but I think if you hear the point is for the self advocates out there is to find your passion, to be involved and get involved and invite yourself. You know, if you wait for the invitation, it may never come. Some of the strongest self advocates that I’ve worked with are a little pain in your sides and that’s a good thing. You know, sometimes they call me and call me and call me, but that’s all right. They want to tell me what they’re working on. They want to tell me, can you help me with this like, commission that I’m on? Can you speak here? Can we co-present, you know, and sort of find that group.
And I think that’s with anything, but in the disability community to have a group of allies who will support you with those missions and so create a little crew for lack of better way to describe it. If you have a little crew that you go around and you’re pushing things and having meetings and learning who’s who in your communities I think you’re gonna make it a better lived experience, not only for yourselves as self advocates, but also for the community generally, because you’re gonna be advocating for a lot of the same things.
So yeah, I’m really excited. I think the self advocate movement’s gonna change a lot in the coming years with social media, with a lot of access, that’s not necessarily physical access there’s can be a lot of different ways to engage people, get stories heard and seen.
I think it’s gonna be really impactful to get that out there. But you know, use all those tools that are available to you wherever that might be.
Keith: So last question before I let you go and thank you for being so personal in this final interview of the first season of Disability Empowerment Now. I very much hope that you will come back in other seasons and talk to us again. You mentioned that you are a big fan of the self-advocacy movement and the momentum that that movement rightly so has added back right now, but going the opposite way, talking about people who do not yet have disabilities, what would you hope that listeners who don’t have disabilities yet, what would you hope that they would take away from this interview, and everything that you have said?
J.J.: That’s an interesting question. As you were asking it, I think the one thing you, hopefully you didn’t hear, or any of the, the listeners who listened to this didn’t hear is any stories of pity, any stories of, oh, the inspirational, you know, type of narrative.
Um, I, I want people to move away from that because people with disabilities are people first, um, you know, sure the things they do may be inspiring, but it’s not necessarily because of their disability. Um, and so that we need more allies. I also like how you put it not yet disabled because. More than likely most people will acquire a disability at some point in their life, or be exposed to it, even if maybe they’re the healthiest people ever they may also have a personal connection, whether that be in their families or colleagues, et cetera. And so to be allies, as opposed to, you know, just, oh, that’s great. Great for you. Or I’m so happy or you’re blessed, or, you know, allies next to, because the best movements in the history of civil rights movements have been diverse populations coming together. Not necessarily just of one background.
If you look at the African American black civil rights movement of the sixties, when you see pictures and you read stories, it wasn’t just African Americans and blacks. It was connections of various backgrounds, different churches, different faiths coming together saying that’s wrong. That needs to stop.
And so that’s what I’m encouraging for people without disabilities, who, who may acquire ’em down the road is to understand that the disability movement is, it needs you to be part of it, because if you see injustice, if you see it wrong, if you see that you can make something more accessible advocate for that and so I think that’s would be my message to that section of community, is really to, to join forces and, and make sure that we, as a disability community are stronger with allies rather than you just on the sidelines, cheering us on. We need you fighting along with us, standing next to us and making sure that we’re all in this together.
Um, so I, I think that’s, that would be my message to that community.
Keith: Well, J.J., again, thank you so much for the time in dedication and personal and professional anecdotes you have shared with my listeners and me, this past almost hour and a half. I know you are an extremely busy man, and again I want to thank you for really making time in your schedule for this interview. I only met you once before and so I was very unsure if you would have time or even remember who I was since we only met for a few minutes years ago, something like that. It really means a lot to me that you would block out time in your schedule for an hour and a half to take the time and to be as honest and as vulnerable with your personal and professional history. This is why I do the podcast. It is to hear the personal and professional anecdotes and see and hear how they play off one another. So again thank you for the work you do but also for sharing it with the listeners of this podcast.
J.J.: Uh, and no, thank you for having me. I really appreciate it. I know I answered some of those questions a lot longer than maybe you imagine, but again, it. The platform, you know, that you’ve given me to share not only about myself, but about the agency’s welcome. I think what you’re doing is great. It needs to be done even more so I’m hoping that you, you have a lot of listeners out there.
Hopefully I didn’t scare any off today. Um, but I’m happy to come back if that’s something you feel that, um, your podcast would benefit from, and give you some other recommendations. If there were certain topics or, um, individuals you might wanna speak with, maybe connect you with some of them. Yeah, but I think this is a great opportunity for yourself, um, for those who are joining the podcast, there’s a lot to learn here and it’s kind of interesting that Jovan starts and I end the first section. You know, again, great to be connected with him in any way. I’m very proud of what he’s accomplished. And always when I see that too, I feel that I’m doing good work there. So I’m, I’m so happy that you’ve had Jovan and you guys have continued your relationship as well.
Keith: Yeah. I mean, When I knew that Jovan would be the first interview, I thought okay, I am starting off the first season with an attorney who has Cerebral Palsy, who can close the season and bring it full circle in a way. No that the second episode or the ninth episode wasn’t important, because every guest this season was important, but i like to have an arc and form a narrative as cohesive as possible and it just so happened that when I thought about jovan and the first time we ever met, there was only one other person I could think of that would be the perfect continuation and closure of this season and that was you J.J. and so again thank you for that. And before I let you go, if you could give the Arizona Center for Disability Laws website one more time in case any listeners really want to do a deep dive about the center or find out how they can get involved, what would be that website, one more time?
J.J.: Yeah. So the Arizona center for disability law can be found at AZdisabilitylaw.org. So again, our website is AZ disability law.org. Uh, you can also call us at +1 800-927-2260. We are on Facebook and Twitter as well.
So if you’re interested, you can follow us there or like us and you also can subscribe when you go to our website, subscribe to our newsletter, which we do at least once a month and also send out announcements for training or upcoming community events. So there are a lot of ways to find out about us and a lot of ways to get involved with a ACDL, if it’s something that you’re interested in.
Keith: Thank you again, J.J. I feel like I’ve thanked you so much in the past ten minutes but its worth repeating. The organization that you have been a part of for over 20 years have done incredible work and it is my privilege to have a platform so that I can highlight the incredibly important work that the Arizona Center of Disability Law does.
Keith: You have been listening to Disability Empowerment Now. I would like to thank my guest today and you, the listener. More information about the podcast can be found on DisabilityEmpowermentNow.com. The podcast is available wherever you listen to podcasts or on the official website. This episode of Disability Empowerment Now is copyrighted 2022.