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I want them to walk away with a knowledge that the law and effective advocacy are the best tools to ensure access to mainstream American life.

Professor David Tarrien has been with WMU-Cooley since September of 2003.

Professor Tarrien has served as a Coordinator for Academic Support and Assistant Professor, running the Grand Rapids campus’s academic support program and teaching legal methods, research and writing, federal disability law, and special education law, among other classes.

David also serves as Cooley’s representative on the West Michigan Presidents Compact Committee, and has been a member of the boards of directors for both the Dyslexia Center of West Michigan and Arts in Motion. He is the founder and current Board President of Friends of Dyslexia Education for West Michigan Children, which raises funds for area reading programs. He previously served as vice president of the school board for St. Andrew’s School in Grand Rapids, and as a volunteer researcher for the Michigan Disability Rights Coalition in East Lansing.

BusinessInterviews.com:  Can you share some of the key issues surrounding disability access in areas such as: education, employment, and day-to-day living?

David: The main access issues  in all realms involve removing barriers to access – whether physical or otherwise; in all realms reasonable accommodations are required of businesses, schools, government offices, apartments, etc. that allow free access to the American way of life for people with disabilities.

BusinessInterviews.com:  Where does your passion come from when it comes to helping and educating and advocacy in the areas of special education and disabilities?

David: Well, like many who are drawn to this area of law, I have some personal experience; I have a family member with cerebral palsy, who has suffered discrimination throughout her life, and I’ve had various friends and family members who have struggled to receive appropriate special education services for their children.

BusinessInterviews.com:  You use disability fact patterns in your writing classes to help students develop effective advocacy skills in this area.  What do you hope that the average student walks away with?

David: A sense of duty to the community as a whole and also a duty to not only those with disabilities, but to anyone that suffers from unjust and illegal discrimination; also, I want them to walk away with a knowledge that the law and effective advocacy are the best tools to ensure access to mainstream American life.

BusinessInterviews.com:  Can you expand on your belief that, “disability rights are about access to the American way of life?”

David: Yes – people with disabilities have historically been kept, whether intentionally or negligently, from fully experiencing the American life; whether that was because they couldn’t gain access to a movie, public library, or jobsite because those places weren’t wheelchair accessible, for example; or because they were underachieving academically because a learning disability was not appropriately addressed, or any number of other examples. Regardless, enforcing the rights given under laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act makes sure that people have every opportunity to live up to their full potential and be recognized for what they can do rather than for what they can’t – that’s all any of us want – it is in fact, the American dream.

BusinessInterviews.com:  What interesting or surprising discoveries have you made while researching assistive technology as reasonable accommodations for education and employment under the Americans with Disabilities Act?

David:  Primarily, the wide array of technologies that are available, from voice activated reading software for the sight impaired to speech generative devices for individuals with autism. Where the challenges legally lie at this point, particularly in education, is making sure that the parties involved know that these devices do assist in leveling the educational playing field for the student rather than take the place of the child’s actual capacity to learn. That is a hard concept to understand, and can sometimes lead to inadvertent discrimination when a perfectly viable assistive device is denied to a child because it is thought she is getting an undue advantage by its use.

BusinessInterviews.com:  What areas of disability law do you think have made the most strides?  What areas still have a long way to go?

David:  Disability law really has only been around as a thing for a little over 40 years, starting with the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and continuing through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in 1975, the Fair Housing Amendments in the 80s and the ADA in 1990. Strides in all these areas have been large. People with disabilities are much more visible and integrated in the 21st century than was the case previously. That being said, in every area there is a long way to go. In 2008, the Congress amended the ADA to make clear that disability was not to be defined narrowly, which the courts had been doing. Mental illness and learning disabilities and challenges probably have the longest to go; because these are unseen issues, they are harder to fathom, easier to ignore or call into question, and there are many lawsuits enforcing the existing laws in these areas. His is especially true with illnesses and injuries suffered by veterans of our recent wars. Making sure these disabilities are recognized and protected are a major area of work for lawyers involved in these issues.

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