J. Fraser Nelson '81, Liz McCoy '87, Victoria King Calevas '94

Leveling the Field
Writer: 
March 31, 2005

 

Team work: from left, Calevas, Nelson, and McCoy

Team work: from left, Calevas, Nelson, and McCoy

Legal services are supposed to help people with disabilities get around in the world. But in Utah, visiting all the available legal services was itself a challenge until three years ago, when several nonprofits banded together under one Salt Lake City roof. And it was a trio of Duke graduates who helped make the Community Legal Center into a one-of-a-kind institution.

The center originated from a capital campaign started in May 2002 by private Salt Lake City lawyer Victoria King Calevas '94, while she was a staffer at And Justice for All, a grassroots organization that solicits funds from lawyers to help poor people pay for legal services. The 30,000-square-foot facility opened five months later and received rave reviews for its design, as well as its complete accessibility.

"The building's beauty says something to our commitment for justice for all people, no matter their circumstances," says J. Fraser Nelson '81, executive director of the Disability Law Center, one of four groups housed in the building. (The others are Utah Legal Services, the Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake City, and the Multicultural Legal Center.)

All four organizations in the center operate under the credo that the poor deserve legal representation equal to that of the rich and a say in their own services. For example, 80 percent of Nelson's board of directors has a disability or a child with a disability, and about ten of Nelson's twenty-five fulltime employees are lawyers who forgo higher-paying assignments to do work they believe in.

Nelson majored in political science and history but graduated as a protester without a cause. "I was part of the generation that thought it had missed all the great movements." Soon, however, she was working for former North Carolina governor Jim Hunt's campaign for the U.S. Senate against Jesse Helms, lobbying for Planned Parenthood in the state legislature, and then running Minnesota's HIV/AIDS services programs. She moved to Utah in 1996 to lead the Disability Law Center.

Consolidation of Utah's free legal-service agencies has saved overhead expenses and allowed Nelson to steer more of her organization's $1.5-million annual budget toward helping clients. Last year, Nelson's organization worked with more than 6,000 individuals representing eighty disabilities. Predictably, her organization focuses on helping clients advocate for equal education, work, and housing but, these days, is also addressing systemic issues such as access to health care.

Liz McCoy '87 works for Nelson as a community-outreach educator. McCoy's mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1960 at age eighteen. As a result, McCoy has long been sensitive to the challenges of otherwise routine daily tasks. After receiving a master's degree in therapeutic recreation, McCoy embarked on a career helping disabled people take part in outdoor activities from rafting to cross-country skiing. Most recently, she worked at helping greater numbers of disabled people in Utah register to vote and helped train poll workers to be sensitive to the needs of such voters in the November election.

Even with the progress that has been made, Nelson still sees the disabled as one of the segments of society most thoroughly discriminated against. "You won't see a building anymore that says 'No Coloreds.' But when you visit a store that is inaccessible, it might as well have a sign up that says 'No Gimps,' " she says.

"There are those who don't have their own room or make their own decisions, purely because of the way they were born."

Workers like Nelson, McCoy, and Calevas are hoping to change that.