SAN FRANCISCO – Catherine Blakemore, who has spent her working life advocating and litigating for the rights of people with disabilities, has been recognized for her long-term commitment to the cause.
Blakemore, who has been practicing as an attorney for 39 years, almost all on behalf of people with disabilities, many of them poor or indigent, is this year’s Loren Miller Legal Services Award winner.
The award honors those who have shown a long commitment to legal services, particularly services to the poor.
Blakemore was profiled in the latest edition of the California Bar Journal, the official publication of the California State Bar.
The profile, authored by staff writer Amy Yarbrough with additional reporting, includes details of Blakemore’s careers, and quotes admiring colleagues and friends.
A class-action case from the late '80s that Blakemore filed was revisited in the article. The case helped the release of people from state institutions. One of the class members, a man with intellectual disabilities named Jimmy White, was able to decide how he wished to wear his hair, a decision previously made by institutional staff.
“When we saw him, he had grown his hair out and wore a very full beard,” Blakemore told the Bar Journal. “Someone like Jimmy White isn’t going to know he has a choice.”
“I think it’s very compelling to kind of secure people’s freedom for them,” added Blakemore, the executive director of the Disability Rights California.
Blakemore also served on one of the legal teams that worked on the far-reaching class-action suit Chanda Smith v. Los Angeles Unified School District, the Journal noted in its profile. Many students with special needs were segregated from other children and did not receive a comparable education. The suit resulted in an order that improved services for about 80,000 students.
Blakemore first worked at the student clinic at Loyola Law School, helping low-income tenants, people facing issue with debt collectors, and parents having trouble getting the right education for their children.
She joined the Legal Aid Foundation in 1978. This was shortly after the passage of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the Journal noted, adding that the act was designed to ensure that kids with disabilities receive an appropriate public education.
“It was a real opportunity as a young lawyer to start from the ground up, figuring out what this statute meant,” she said.
Back then, children with disabilities were not only segregated from other children in schools, but in a lot of cases educated at different sites entirely, Blakemore said.
She recalled one client in particular named Jeremy, who had been forced to attend a different school after being rendered quadriplegic by a drunk driver.
“They said the reason was his ventilator made noise that might distract other children,” she said. “It seemed to me such a violation of his rights, basic human rights.”
Blakemore was ultimately successful in his case.
“To me that was a perfect example of how the law could be used to vindicate an individual’s rights,” she said.
Blakemore joined Disability Rights California, initially as a managing attorney, in 1980. She successfully litigating Butterfield v. Honig in 1988, which resulted in students in Los Angeles County with mental health issues receiving mandated health services.