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  • Writer's pictureAdam Dayan, Esq.

Cardozo Law School Symposium on Personhood and Civic Engagement by People with Disabilities

This is a follow-up to my previous post about Cardozo's Symposium on Personhood and Civic Engagement by People with Disabilities. Those who attended the symposium were rewarded with a fantastic event consisting of thought-provoking panels and highly esteemed panel members. Some of the biggest highlights for me included:

1) Rosemarie Garland-Thomson's discussion about personhood and the roles that government, science, and culture play in defining it. She spoke captivatingly about the study of eugenics and the role it has played in influencing society's views toward and treatment of people with disabilities throughout history. I was surprised to learn of a quote from U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes from Buck v. Bell, 274 U.S. 200 (May 2, 1927), a case which is considered to have legitimized the eugenics movement in the U.S., in which Justice Holmes stated "three generations of imbeciles are enough" in supporting a Virginia statute providing for the sexual sterilization of those deemed to be unfit to bear children. That led me to do some further research. If you'd like to read more about this case and its role in the eugenics movement, check out Buck v. Bell and HuffPo.

The eugenics movement in the U.S. and the aftermath from World War II and the Holocaust led to a series of declarations, agreements, and laws regarding personhood, including the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA or EHA), which later evolved into the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

2) Eric Rosenthal's talk about his organization Disability Rights International (DRI), which is dedicated to the protection and full inclusion of children and adults with disabilities under international human rights law. Learning about and fighting for the rights of people with disabilities on an international level is something that interests me deeply. One of the points from Eric's talk that stayed with me was the importance of directing foreign aid in an appropriate manner so as to bring about positive and meaningful results instead of perpetuating organizations that may be harmful. More information about the organization and its work can be found on DRI's website at

3) Judge Kristin Booth Glen's, Robert Dinerstein's, and Leslie Salzman's lectures about exercising legal capacity. Specifically, they addressed some of the problems with guardianship and the extent to which guardianship takes away decision-making power from the individual and deprives the individual of opportunities to interact meaningfully with others. They also explained the concept of Supported Decision Making, meant to provide individuals with disabilities more decision-making power through a series of contracts to make and communicate their decisions for various situations. This raised a number of questions for me, such as: how would these agreements be written, what kinds of decisions would they address, how would they be implemented and enforced, what costs would be involved for the individual's family, and what kind of legislation would be necessary to make this possible.

Other highlights from the symposium included watching a powerful video performance of "Gimp" by the Heidi Latsky Dance group, an organization dedicated to broadening exposure to disability and dance, and hearing from Bernard Carabello, a former inmate at the infamous Willowbrook State School in New York, who collaborated with Geraldo Rivera to expose Willowbrook's abuses, which led to the shuttering of the institution and the start of a movement to end institutionalization and promote inclusion.

Cardozo will be publishing scholarly articles written by some of the panelists on some of these topics in an upcoming law review journal. I will be looking out for it.

I also want to note that it's been almost 9 years since I graduated from Cardozo. Union Square is still young and cool. The New School still dominates the corner of 14th Street and 5th Avenue albeit in its new honeycomb form. NYU's presence continues to be felt (even more so now that they have taken over the old Forbes building directly across from Cardozo). And as much as the area has stayed the same, I know I have not, and it was interesting to reflect upon that as I walked from the subway station to the school.


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