A conversation with Conrad Reynoldson ’14: Advocating for disability rights and inclusion

Conrad Reynoldson hadn’t set out to work in disability rights litigation. To pursue his interest in policy and legislation, he planned to go to Washington, D.C. or Olympia after graduation. But facing employment discrimination in his job hunt, Reynoldson came to a realization that changed his career path: “if someone with my qualifications can face that, anybody with a disability can.”

Fast forward three years later and Reynoldson has seized the opportunity to improve accessibility and inclusion, founding a nonprofit law firm, Washington Civil & Disability Advocate.

We sat down with Reynoldson to learn more about his firm and how young lawyers can make a difference in the community.

You recently founded Washington Civil and Disability Advocate. How did you come to start the firm?

After law school, when I started looking for opportunities, I faced employment discrimination in jobs that I thought were the perfect fit for me. It made me think, this is a problem, but it could also be an opportunity to make things better.

I started learning in more detail about the Americans with Disabilities Act, and disability rights laws that are already in place, and I came to the realization that laws are only as good as whether they are followed. There needs to be equally as much education and enforcement as actual legislative work. So one thing led to another, taking on a few cases and learning more about litigation, and realizing this is an area that needs more advocates, especially those with disabilities.

We have been a 501(c)(3) nonprofit since February, but we started out, for simplicity, as a for-profit, with the idea that we were working on becoming a nonprofit. Our cases are mostly focused on employment discrimination issues or accessibility in both the public and private sectors. We wanted to be focused on making as much systemic change as possible.

What has the response been like?

We have as many clients as we’re able to handle. It really tells me that it’s an untapped need, and that there’s a lot of untapped demand, and people need a place to turn to make things better. I’m a firm believer in the disability rights mantra, “nothing about us without us,” and I really think the charge needs to be led by attorneys and other advocates with disabilities as much as possible, by people who understand disability first hand.

What do you find the most rewarding, and the most challenging, aspect about your work?

The most rewarding thing is being able to make a tangible difference in the things that I have faced my whole life, and have never had a way to do something about, until now. Most people with disabilities encounter all sorts of accessibility issues and they don’t have any way to deal with it practically. Whereas here, if we see a problem, we can actually do something about it and fix it.

But then I guess the biggest challenge would be, since this work is so personally meaningful, being able to step back and not things personally. It’s a balance. There’s something really satisfying about being able to drive down the street and say, “look, that’s better, we fixed that,” and actually be able to see the results.

This year, the city of Seattle agreed to build thousands of sidewalk curb ramps as part of an agreement to settle a federal class action lawsuit. As a plaintiff, what did this agreement mean to you?

From personal experience, there are many neighborhoods where I had to drive from driveway to driveway trying to find some place up on the sidewalk, so this will have a tangible benefit. This block in particular [where Washington Civil and Disability Advocate is located] has multiple missing curb cutouts, so even right here. I do appreciate that in this settlement, the reporting system that the city of Seattle has, they’re required to respond to and address issues within a year, so the most pressing ones will get dealt with first. I feel like that’s a natural way to do it, based on the demand of people with disabilities who need it changed.

Do you have any words of advice to students or young lawyers about how they can make a difference in their work?

I’d suggest that they stay open to whatever possibilities are out there. For a while, I thought I had to do policy and legislation, it’s what I’ve spent all this time doing. Then this opportunity opened in front of me, and I thought, an even better thing has opened up. So being able, as much as possible, to go with the flow. Especially when people have some sort of unique connection to a minority group they’re a part of, or different ways where they can make a specific impact where others may not be able to. I guess my hesitation originally to go into disability law specifically, for example, was I didn’t want to be defined by my disability; I’ve always been focused on what interests me, what I want to do. And so I thought, “If I do that, is it reinforcing that?” Instead, just embrace it. If you can make a unique impact in a community, you should take that opportunity to make a difference.