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The Evolution of Disability Rights Litigation (and some stories)

David Ferleger, Esq.

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Disability Rights

So, why do I end up doing what I do? In the beginning, I thought it was a general interest in civil rights issues. I did some work in law school with a couple of professors who were interested in institutional rights in general, and nursing home issues. And then, there was in the air then, a lot of civil rights kind of work and litigation and advocacy. As time went on, I think I began to realize. I know I began to realize that my concern for people with retardation, mental health issues and other disability issues probably came from my background as a child of Holocaust survivors.

My mother and father both survived the Holocaust in Poland. My mother, Miriam Ferleger, was in the Warsaw Ghetto, one of the last people to leave the Warsaw Ghetto. And then in Auschwitz and Mydonick and other concentration camps. And my father, after his town was destroyed, Albert Ferleger, lived in a hole dug under a stable for a couple of years with another man. And, I learned surprisingly after I began this work that all the methods were used later to kill the Jews in Europe were first used on people with disabilities.

Germany is probably the only country in the world without elderly people with retardation because systematically, people were killed with that handicap in Germany before World War II. So, I think my concern with people who were treated less as people comes out of that kind of family and a personal background.

Judge Raymond J. Broderick, who has passed away, loved to tell this story because it explained for him the importance to him personally of the Pennhurst case. He presided over Halderman v. Pennhurst State Hospital for many years and went from believing in institutions, having as lieutenant governor helped people get into the institution, to eventually ordering the first order of its kind in the country that the institution be closed.

So, a few years after he finished the legal work on the case. This is what he said happened. He said, one night I was asleep, it was about 10:00, and my phone rang. My phone number's listed, he would say, and the phone rang, and Judge Broderick said, I picked up the phone. Somebody said Judge ba bra br Broderick in a hesitant voice, and the judge, he was tired and sleepy said, yes, this is Judge Broderick, can I help you? The voice at the other end said "hello" and said his name. "This is the first phone call I have ever made, I used to live at Pennhurst and I called because I wanted to thank you." And, that's the end of Judge Broderick's story.

He, often, when he talked about the case told that story to show just in that little picture of somebody being able for the first time in his life to make a phone call, and to express himself to the Judge who made it possible. That was his encapsulation of the importance of these kinds of rights to people.

It's a beautiful story and he really loved to tell that story.

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