April 2018 Bar Bulletin
By Gene Barton
Conrad Reynoldson has been fighting since the day he was born, and he isn’t about to give up. Diagnosed at birth with muscular dystrophy, which means he has used a wheelchair since childhood, Reynoldson still has two “muscles” that don’t stop working — his heart and his brain; not to mention his courage. We met on a rainy Valentine’s Day in his small office just north of the University of Washington, which is headquarters for his nonprofit law firm, Washington Civil & Disability Advocate. As the name indicates, “WACDA” stands up for the disability community, particularly when it comes to accessibility issues.
We chatted across a table covered with a jigsaw puzzle he is working on; a Seattle Seahawks blanket covers his legs. Reynoldson still has some use of his hands, so he can maneuver a mouse and piece together a puzzle — literally and figuratively. What he has overcome and how he has persevered to get where he is today say a lot about who he is. Reynoldson finds strength in interesting sources. Lego and other representations of Batman, i.e., the Caped Crusader, adorn his office. “At a really early age, maybe 5, I went through a phase where I only answered to ‘Batman,’” he says. “I called my Mom Robin and wore a cape every day.” He has used a wheelchair since he was 10, but his superhero days have never ended.
He finds a source of strength in his surrogate crusader for justice. “He’s a superhero without super powers,” Reynoldson notes. “He relies on his intellect and skill to get the job done. I was drawn to that.” Born in Tacoma in 1986 to banker parents, Reynoldson had a peripatetic life up and down the I-5 corridor, from Vancouver to Kirkland. His wheelchairs have evolved, as he has, over the last 20-plus years. “This one’s a lot fancier,” he says, taking periodic sips on a tube that emits pressurized air to help keep his lungs inflated. “Technology is my friend.”
He attended Lake Washington High School in Kirkland, and Seattle Pacific University, when his family lived right by the campus. He graduated summa cum laude in 2009 with bachelor’s degrees in political science and history. “I grew up watching the History Channel,” he says. “I was into history and government from an early age. I knew I wanted to be involved somehow.” His inspiration was “the fact that my family had expectations for me and knew I could accomplish great things in life and had the ability to do so,” Reynoldson says. “I just needed to apply myself.” He hasn’t disappointed in that respect. It is “unfortunate,” he says, that too many parents of children with disabilities “lower the bar more than they should.” His parents, on the other hand, “pushed me,” and not just in his wheelchair.
While attending SPU, Reynoldson served as a U.S. Senate intern in D.C. in 2007 with the American Association of People with Disabilities. He was assigned to Sam Brownback, whose current political pedigree masks his past. “He is a big supporter of disability rights,” Reynoldson says. “One of his staffers at the time was blind. She gave the tours and had memorized where everything was. People underestimate how much you can do if you just set your mind to it. I’m always up to a new challenge.”
Like law school. “I was originally looking at a master’s in public policy or public administration,” Reynoldson says. “That evolved. I narrowed it down to a master’s in international relations or law school. I applied to graduate and law schools and took the GRE and the LSAT at the same time. I wouldn’t recommend it.” He eventually decided that law school was the route to go; his dedication showed. “I thought I could make a greater impact in the disability community,” he says. “I had to turn down a full ride to the UCSD master’s program.” Reynoldson stayed close to home instead and attended the University of Washington School of Law, starting in the fall of 2011. William H. Gates Hall posed no obstacles to obtaining a law degree. “It’s very accessible as is. That (part) was very easy,” he says. His books were put into electronic format and he could use his indispensable computer for everything. “I had no trouble keeping up with everyone else.” For tests, he had a private space where he could dictate speech to text, convert it to MS Word, and send it off. “That’s how I passed the bar exam,” he says. “The technology has improved vastly over 10 years ago.” Having a personal assistant also helped immensely.
After graduating in 2014 and being licensed, Reynoldson was looking to get back into politics and legislation. “Some opportunities came up in Olympia in line with my experience,” he says. “I used my connections and aced the interviews.” But he hit an invisible wall; one that he is now trying to tear down. He couldn’t get hired. “For a lot of reasons, I knew it was discrimination,” he says. “If that can happen to me, it can happen to anybody else with a disability. They didn’t know what I was capable of. It just made me realize, ‘Let’s turn this into a positive and how I can make this better for myself and other people.’”
Instead, he got a job with a disability organization in 2015 — the Northwest Access Fund, a financial organization that provides low-interest loans and individual development accounts for people with disabilities. While there, he learned a lot about the Americans with Disabilities Act on the side and started thinking about whether he could take cases on his own. But there was doubt. As he told the UW Law online magazine, “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 (my disability).’ Instead, just embrace it. If you can make a unique impact in a community, you should take that opportunity to make a difference.”
With that in mind, Reynoldson founded WACDA about two years ago, in a fairly quick “ramp up process,” a pun he acknowledges. “I was just working at home, sending demand letters,” he says. “I started working on making it a for-profit business and moved here in July 2016, and by February 2017 made it into a nonprofit.” Access problems come from every direction. WACDA’s first case involved Hec Ed Pavilion. “It was built in the 1920s and had a remodel in the early 2000s,” Reynoldson says. “But it didn’t comply with the ADA. There were a variety of access issues from parking, to ramps to get in, to accessing seating inside.” Working with Disability Rights Washington (DRW), where he interned during law school, Reynoldson filed a lawsuit that ended up settling.
It was while Reynoldson was working with DRW that he became involved — as a plaintiff — in a curb cut case against the City of Seattle. “All of the named plaintiffs in that class action were attorneys with disabilities,” he recalls. Earlier this year, the City agreed to build thousands of sidewalk curb ramps to settle the case. “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,” Reynoldson said in his UW Law interview. “So, the most pressing (problems) 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.”
WACDA also took on Impark (Imperial Parking (US) LLC), an owner of commercial parking lots, in a federal court action in 2016. The July 2017 settlement compelled the company to fix its ADA-compliance issues in 20 parking lots and garages in the Seattle area and elsewhere in western Washington, and survey 37 others for violations and potential remediation. Parking problems are the No. 1 complaint Reynoldson hears. “Accessible parking should be the easiest thing to take care of,” he says, “but it is the most common problem we deal with. Many commercial lots don’t have handicapped spaces, or there are not enough, or they’re not on level ground, or they’re not wide enough.”
In a pending case against Ticketmaster, concerning its NFL ticket exchange, Reynoldson (at press time) was waiting on a summary judgment ruling from U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Zilly. The issue: “There wasn’t any way for people with disabilities to know which seats are accessible.” WACDA has as much work as Reynoldson and his staff — a paralegal and associate attorney — can handle. As he told UW Law, “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 firsthand.”
Unfortunately, there are battles to be fought everywhere and not enough advocates like Reynoldson to go around. For example, the sidewalk along the south side of 45th Street, heading up the hill toward WACDA’s office, is a prime case in point. The sidewalk looks like a scattered tumble of dominoes; the concrete slabs thrust upward and askew by tree roots. It’s hard enough for an able person to navigate; impossible for someone in a wheelchair. But one sidewalk isn’t Reynoldson’s cause de guerre; he is focused on the bigger picture. “We have to prioritize,” he says. “What can make the most systemic change? Something that will affect the largest number of people and not just one person.”
A current challenge in the area of legal advocacy, which is one of Reynoldson’s key battlegrounds, is HR 620 in the U.S. House of Representatives — the “ADA Education and Reform Act,” which has been bouncing around the halls of Congress for more than a year and was passed out of the House the day after we spoke. While one section would require “the Disability Rights Section of the Department of Justice to develop a program to educate state and local governments and property owners on strategies for promoting access to public accommodations for persons with a disability,” another section potentially strips the right of aggrieved plaintiffs to obtain attorney fees under the ADA upon winning a civil action.
“It would short circuit the private enforcement process,” Reynoldson says. “It would require a notice and cure period before filing suit, which gives (the defendant) time to fix the problem and not pay attorney fees.” Absent the availability of attorney fees, there will be less litigation. “The Department of Justice depends on private enforcement, when they want to do it. The ADA is designed to be privately enforced.” Here in Washington, Reynoldson is working with the Legislature to pass disability rights laws. “We need to pass a state law that is stronger than the ADA, like California’s,” he says. He worked with Rep. Joan McBride (D-48) on a bill to require cities to have a plan to implement accessible on-street parking. The bill “caught people’s attention,” Reynoldson says, but it was pulled and did not come up for a vote in the most recent session.
He also is working with the Seattle Commission for People with DisAbilities and the City Council on an ordinance that would require places of public accommodation that charge for admission to not charge a caregiver for a ticket. The effort includes talks with the director of the Seattle Center to implement such a policy throughout the Seattle Center. “It’s a net plus for businesses themselves,” Reynoldson says, “because you’re getting customers who wouldn’t come at all otherwise. If you don’t sell out, you’re just adding more patrons.” Reynoldson certainly is not giving up or slowing down — ever. “I hope that we continue to grow, hire additional attorneys and expand to do as much education and assistance work as we can,” he says. “Volunteers would help.”
Making a tangible difference for others who face life struggles as he did, particularly when he could not do anything about them, is the most rewarding and, yet, challenging aspect of his work. “Most people with disabilities encounter all sorts of accessibility issues and they don’t have any way to deal with it practically,” he told UW Law. “Whereas here, if we see a problem, we can actually do something about it and fix it.”
The goal is inclusion, not exclusion. “We believe that everyone has something to bring to the table,” Reynoldson says. “People with disabilities have been underestimated and underutilized for too long and we must realize that they do have a voice and can make things better.”
Author’s Note: “People First Language” is generally the best approach when referring to people with disabilities, Conrad says. Words such as “disabled” and “handicapped” are misnomers. As stated by the Texas Council for Developmental Disabilities: People with disabilities are — first and foremost — people. People with disabilities are people who have individual abilities, interests and needs. For the most part, they are ordinary individuals seeking to live ordinary lives. People with disabilities are moms, dads, sons, daughters, sisters, brothers, friends, neighbors, coworkers, students and teachers. About 54 million Americans — one out of every five individuals — have a disability. Their contributions enrich our communities and society as they live, work and share their lives.
For more information, visit: http://www.tcdd.texas.gov/resources/people-first-language/.
Gene Barton is the editor of the Bar Bulletin. He is a shareholder with Karr Tuttle Campbell, where he maintains a general litigation practice.