Catherine Blakemore: A Fierce Civil rights Leader for Disabled, 0916 CABARJ, CBJ — September 2016 #01

AuthorAmy Yarbrough Staff Writer

Catherine Blakemore: A fierce Civil Rights Leader for the Disabled

No. 2016 #01

California Bar Journal

September, 2016

Amy Yarbrough Staff Writer

Although she's been involved in key national efforts and systemic litigation that have helped ensure the rights of thousands of people with disabilities, Catherine Blakemore says sometimes even basic things can leave a big mark.

In the late 1980s, Blakemore filed a class action that helped speed the release of people from state institutions. As a result, one of the class members, a man with intellectual disabilities named Jimmy White, got something else also very important to him: to wear his hair the way he wanted.

"When we saw him, he had grown his hair out and wore a very full beard," said Blakemore, explaining that the institution's staff previously made White's grooming decisions for him. "Someone like Jimmy White isn't going to know he has a choice."

White now lives independently in the North Coast area, helped by support staff.

"I think it's very compelling to kind of secure people's freedom for them," she added.

It's for those victories - both big and small - that Blakemore, the executive director of Disability Rights California, has been selected as this year's recipient of the Loren Miller Legal Services Award The award recognizes people who've shown a long commitment to legal services and extending those services to the poor.

Blakemore, who has a 39-year-history of fighting for equality for people with disabilities, many of them indigent, fits the bill and then some, according to attorney Valerie Vanaman, a former colleague.

Vanaman, who worked alongside Blakemore for many years at the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, said Blakemore "is a person who is very dedicated and committed to working with those least able to take care of themselves.

"She's given all of her professional life to working with an underrepresented population," she said.

Vanaman and Blakemore also served on one of the legal teams that worked on the far-reaching class-action suit Chanda Smith v. Los Angeles Unified School District. At the time, many students with special needs in the district were not receiving a comparable education and were segregated from children without disabilities. The suit resulted in an order that improved services for about 80,000 students.

Paula Pearlman, assistant chief counsel at the Department of Fair Employment and Housing, called her "a natural partner...

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