“This is my dream come true,” said the Hon. Tony Coelho ’64 in welcoming multiple classes of the Coelho Law Fellowship as more than 30 past and current members gathered on the LMU Loyola Law School campus July 15-16 for their first in-person meeting in three years. “What you do after this is what’s important. Going through this is for you, but after that is for the disability community. That’s where you can have an impact.”
Coelho’s welcome set in motion two days of The Coelho Center for Disability Law, Policy & Innovation programming designed to prepare people with disabilities to advocate for their causes as future lawyers, judges, and elected officials. Students from the 2021-2022 cohort joined Coelho Center Director Katherine Perez to share findings from their Disability Advocacy Project. The project is a part of the fellowship that requires the fellows to identify a topic of interest and select one of two projects: to research, write, present, and submit a 10-page policy report, and/or organize and execute a panel discussion with policy experts. Panels included Disability Rights During COVID-19, Disability Rights & Healthcare, Remote Learning During COVID-19, Disability Rights in Higher Education and Disability Rights in K-12 Education.
Students shared their research with their cohort members and participated in Q&A sessions to field inquiries from their peers about what is being done to support people with disabilities, especially during the pandemic. Research topics included the school-to-prison pipeline for underrepresented groups, disabilities in the secondary school education sphere, the digital public health response’s impact on people with disabilities, supporting direct support professionals throughout the pandemic, and more. Many students reflected on their own journey and how they became interested in disability advocacy.
“This was a great introduction for some people of the professionalism of law school,” said Taylor Hein, a graduate of Chapman University and member of the 2021-2022 class. “Preparing for the panel and reaching out to people from different government agencies was a great introduction to eventually getting a job as a legal assistant and going to law school.” Hein will be attending New York Law School in New York City in the fall on a full scholarship.
The Coelho Law Fellowship is just one aspect of The Coelho Center’s multipronged mission: convening thought leaders to pursue positive change on disability issues; leveraging technology to advance the lives of people with disabilities; creating a pipeline of lawyers with disabilities to populate the bench and hold elected office; and fostering a university-wide dialogue on disability-rights issues. The only organization of its kind at a Catholic university in America and the only one housed at a top U.S. law school, the interdisciplinary center draws on the expertise of all seven LMU colleges – by design.
“The challenges that people with disabilities face don’t live in one discipline. We need sustainable collaborations across disciplines to make the law as effective as it has the potential to be,” Dean Michael Waterstone told the fellows. “I hope, if nothing else, your year has taught you that the world needs you in the legal system.”
The event included a session announcing the formation of The Coelho Center Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Access (DEIA) Committee designed to address issues of access and inclusion within the Coelho Center and the fellowship program and increase representation in the decision-making process for policies within the program.
“There are times that people who look like me are silenced, and I don’t want to be a bystander anymore,” said Angelica Vega, a graduate of American University and member of the 2021-2022 class. “I believe that we’re the future of the disability movement. We are going to be… future policy makers, attorneys, judges. Even though we share the common identity of disability, it doesn’t mean we share the same experience, and as such this committee will continue to uplift the values and advance the next generation of the center. I am hoping that one day everyone’s voices will be represented in this space.”
At the conclusion of the first day, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti provided a surprise greeting for the fellows. “I am so indebted to the work of Tony Coelho. You will continue to draw on his name and the fellowship and the work you do as an inspiration. He is somebody who found a way to make sure that all of us in this country belong. And you all now can take that torch.”