Advocacy For People With Disabilities

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Pamela Hoopes began working as a staff attorney at Legal Aid in 1989, representing people with mental illness disabilities. She has seen major changes in disability law since then, both in Minnesota and nationally. As deputy director of Legal Aid’s Minnesota Disability Law Center (MDLC), since 1998, Hoopes oversees a team of 15 attorneys and eight advocates in four locations.

Legal Aid Executive Director Drew Schaffer says, “Pamela is a fearless leader in the cause of equal justice for all, with an unrivaled passion for her relentless advocacy.” In 2018, Minnesota Lawyer recognized her work with its Diversity and Inclusion Award.

SCHMATZ: What drew you to disability law?

HOOPES: I’ve been interested in disability issues since my first volunteer job in high school at a children’s rehabilitation hospital. That work gave me my first look at the challenges that people with disabilities face and taught me that disabilities are a part of life that can happen to anyone at any time.

SCHMATZ: How has the scope of disability law practice changed in your time at MDLC?

HOOPES: My predecessors here at MDLC brought one of the first big de-institutionalization lawsuits, with a focus on people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The case resulted in a 1980 decree that started the process of moving people with disabilities out of large institutions. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) followed in 1990, with a strong push for community integration.

Civil rights enforcement remains central to our mission. As laws and institutions have evolved, our advocacy for people to get the services and supports that they need to integrate safely into the community has become more critical.

SCHMATZ: What is MDLC role as the Minnesota’s Protection and Advocacy (P&A) Center?

HOOPES: Our main priority is prevention of abuse and neglect. We advocate for people with every type of disability statewide. We are very thematic in our work, with a continuing focus on abuse and neglect protection, rights enforcement, and supporting people to live, work, and learn independently in the community. The demand for services is much higher than we can meet, so we have a triage system and draw on pro bono assistance from the legal community.

SCHMATZ: What role do pro bono partners play in your work?

HOOPES: We’re grateful for our partners and their expertise, which extends our capacity to defend our clients’ rights. Some individual attorneys work with us on special education cases, and we are fortunate to have prominent firms partnering with us in an ongoing class action suit. Voting rights work is popular with our corporate pro bono partners, as people of all backgrounds and skills sets can make a valuable contribution.

SCHMATZ: You’ve been on the Minnesota State Plan Advisory Committee to implement the federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA) for over 15 years. Can you tell us a bit about that?

HOOPES: We educate people with disabilities on their rights to voting access, and we work closely with the Secretary of State’s office to train election officials. On a policy level, we oft en comment or testify on legislative issues affecting people with disabilities. We’ve also written “friend of the court” briefs in significant cases that have threatened the voting rights of people with disabilities.

SCHMATZ: What are you most proud of in your job?

HOOPES: All of us at MDLC have a shared commitment to high quality advocacy and legal work. Thanks to the dedicated efforts of my colleagues, our peers in the legal and policy communities respect our advocacy and rely on our analysis as we strive to make Minnesota a leader in disability rights.  Leykn Schmatz

Leykn Schmatz

Mid-Minnesota legal aid provides free civil legal advice and representation to Minnesotans who cannot afford an attorney. Legal aid serves people with low incomes in 20 counties and people with disabilities statewide.

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