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“I Always Hoped I Would Get Out One Day”: Disability Rights Advocates Speak Out

November 14, 2013 — Ricardo Thornton once lived in an institution for persons with developmental disabilities, where he met his future wife, Donna. In the 1980s, the two married and had a child — over the objections of some who thought that they did not have a right to marriage, family or a home of their own.

Today, Thornton is a disability rights activist. He was interviewed on “60 Minutes.” He has testified before Congress. He has met Nelson Mandela and former President Bill Clinton (F’68, H’80). CBS even made a TV movie about the Thorntons.

“I’ve seen some good, I’ve seen some bad, I’ve seen some sad, I’ve seen some unhappy things, but I lived [in an institution] and I always hoped that I would get out one day,” said Thornton, who spoke at Georgetown Law November 13 on a disability rights panel sponsored by the student group Human Rights Action-Amnesty International. “When I got out, one of the things I wanted to do was advocate.”

Joining Thornton on the panel were Adjunct Professor Erin Leveton of the D.C. Department on Disability Services, Professor Robert Dinerstein of American University’s Disability Rights Law Clinic and Morgan Whitlatch (L’02) of the Quality Trust for Individuals with Disabilities.

Topics included the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms for all persons with disabilities.

Caitlin Cocilova (L’15), the co-president of HRI-AI along with Tabitha King (L’15), hosted the event, with the assistance of Karri Ridgeway (L’15) and others.

Thelma Green and Thomas Mangrum of Project Action, the District of Columbia’s self-advocacy group for adults with developmental disabilities, had some advice for lawyers working with persons with disabilities: take the time to listen.     

“You have to make it safe for them, because you don’t know how badly they might have been abused … if you can’t work with them, then you need to find a lawyer who can,” Green said.

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