Former Legal Fellow Applying Degree to Disabilities Policy

Publication Date: 
18 Dec 2013

Kathleen Cornelsen spent a summer as a legal fellow with IFES, during which time she researched laws on disability and voting. Since then, she has continued to apply her legal skills to promoting the rights of persons with disabilities.

In this Q&A, Cornelsen gives us an update on what she has been doing since she left IFES, and where she hopes her journey will take her.

When did you work at IFES and what did you focus on while you were here?

I worked at IFES during the summer of 2011. During my time at IFES, I focused on two projects. First, I worked on updating the election access website by compiling national laws pertaining to disability and voting. I also created a disability checklist to be used by election observers to ensure elections around the world are accessible for persons with disabilities.

What did you learn from your work at IFES?

At IFES, I really learned more about the intersection between elections and disability. Before my time at IFES, I studied and worked on both disability and elections, but I had not explored the intersection of the two. Working at IFES allowed me to understand how the policy-oriented work I had done with disability intersected with electoral law. Further, my work at IFES highlighted the need for electoral advocacy on disability inclusion worldwide.

Where are you currently working? What is your area of focus?

Currently, I am a legal fellow at Global Rights in Washington, D.C. Global Rights is a human rights organization that works in partnership with local activists to build grassroots movements and protect the rights of marginalized populations.

At Global Rights, I frequently work on disability-related projects and issues. Additionally, I perform research on issues of conflict prevention and mitigation. I am currently working on an article about the role of national human rights institutions in conflict early warning systems.

How do you plan to use your law degree to promote the rights of persons with disabilities?

From the time I entered law school I have always planned to use my law degree in a nontraditional manner. I plan to use my degree in policy work and advocacy rather than in the courtroom. My degree helps me understand disability legislation, but changes in legal regimes also depend on society’s understanding and acceptance of persons with disabilities. Because of this, I would ultimately like to use my knowledge to promote grassroots changes to disability policy and practice.

When did you know you wanted to become a disability rights advocate?

I have always been aware of disability issues, given that close friends and family have disabilities. My mother also worked in special education. Additionally, I have always had an interest in human rights, and my undergraduate minor was in human rights.

However, while working toward my undergraduate degree I noticed that even within my human rights minor, disability was never a discussed issue. Because of this, I entered law school knowing I wanted to work to bring more visibility to disability and disability issues. My time spent in law school, including my summer at IFES, crystalized this desire.

What can people do in their everyday lives to help promote the rights of persons with disabilities?

It seems overly simplistic, but one of the most important things people can do to promote the rights of persons with disabilities can be summarized by the phrase “don’t count them out.”

Most people tend to assume that anyone with a disability, be it physical or intellectual, is inherently limited. It is this basic assumption that leads to infringement on the rights of persons with disabilities. For example, people frequently assume that a person with an intellectual disability would inherently have difficulty holding down a job. Such assumptions lead to the creation of society-wide discrimination. By remembering that persons with disabilities may need support, but are not inherently limited, we contribute to preserving the rights of this population.

More concretely, people can talk to others about the rights of persons with disabilities and the need to mitigate these harmful assumptions.

What changes would you like to see take place for persons with disabilities in the U.S. and the world?

I think the most basic, important change is already happening, and that is disability moving to the forefront, especially among civil society organizations in the human rights field. However, there is still a need to bring disability issues to the forefront, especially with governments.

Beyond this change, I would like to see greater inclusion of persons with disabilities in political life. This does not mean just adding a wheelchair-accessible ramp at a polling place. Inclusion means including persons with disabilities and disabled persons organizations in advocacy and planning. Ultimately, an electoral administrative body would not just install a ramp at a polling place; they would consult with disabled persons about the necessary accommodations to ensure electoral access.

In the U.S., I believe there is a need for action on intellectual disability. Much attention is paid to physical disability, but persons with intellectual disabilities remain more marginalized and are more likely to be victims of discrimination or abuse. Because of this, I would like to see increased legislative attention to intellectual disability in a wide variety of contexts.