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Catherine Blakemore: A fierce civil rights leader for the disabled

By Amy Yarbrough
Staff Writer

Although she’s been involved in key national efforts and systemic litigation that have helped ensure the rights of thousands of people with disabilities, Catherine Blakemore says sometimes even basic things can leave a big mark.

Cathrine Blakemore
Catherine Blakemore

In the late 1980s, Blakemore filed a class action that helped speed the release of people from state institutions. As a result, one of the class members, a man with intellectual disabilities named Jimmy White, got something else also very important to him: to wear his hair the way he wanted.

“When we saw him, he had grown his hair out and wore a very full beard,” said Blakemore, explaining that the institution’s staff previously made White’s grooming decisions for him. “Someone like Jimmy White isn’t going to know he has a choice.”

White now lives independently in the North Coast area, helped by support staff.

“I think it’s very compelling to kind of secure people’s freedom for them,” she added.

It’s for those victories – both big and small – that Blakemore, the executive director of Disability Rights California, has been selected as this year’s recipient of the Loren Miller Legal Services Award. The award recognizes people who’ve shown a long commitment to legal services and extending those services to the poor.

Blakemore, who has a 39-year-history of fighting for equality for people with disabilities, many of them indigent, fits the bill and then some, according to attorney Valerie Vanaman, a former colleague.

Vanaman, who worked alongside Blakemore for many years at the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, said Blakemore “is a person who is very dedicated and committed to working with those least able to take care of themselves.

“She’s given all of her professional life to working with an underrepresented population,” she said.

Vanaman and 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. At the time, many students with special needs in the district were not receiving a comparable education and were segregated from children without disabilities. The suit resulted in an order that improved services for about 80,000 students.

Paula Pearlman, assistant chief counsel at the Department of Fair Employment and Housing, called her “a natural partner and ally in coalition building and extension and development of disability civil rights.”

Blakemore continues to work advocating change through legislation, Pearlman said.

“This award is not for her past glories. She continues to do the work,” she said.

Growing up in Southern California, Blakemore recalls being instilled with a desire to help others. Blakemore’s grandmothers and a great-grandmother were teachers, as was her mother, who was frequently assigned to work with children who had more trouble learning.

“Doing good in the world and achieving justice was a family focus,” she said.

Blakemore got her first taste of legal services working at the student clinic at Loyola Law School, helping out everyone from low-income tenants with uninhabitable housing, to people being harassed by debt collectors or those having trouble getting the right education for their kids. 

Blakemore joined the Legal Aid Foundation in 1978, not long after passage of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which is 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 recalled.

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 recalls 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.

James Preis, executive director of Mental Health Advocacy Services Inc. in Los Angeles, met Blakemore in the late 1970s when the movement for disabled rights first began to explode.

Blakemore had just finished her stint at a Loyola Law School clinic, one of the first to work on rights for the disabled. But in the decades since, Blakemore’s name has been associated with dozens of cases advocating for mental health services, public access to transportation and special education for people with disabilities.

“The whole area around services for children with disabilities in schools was a brand-new legal area,” Preis said. “The law changed dramatically.”

Blakemore joined Disability Rights California, initially as a managing attorney, in 1980. Her legal victories over the years also included successfully litigating Butterfield v. Honig in 1988. It resulted in students in Los Angeles County with mental health issues receiving mandated health services.

In 2013 and 2014 Blakemore led successful efforts to get legislation passed to improve regional centers – which serve people with developmental disabilities – making sure their services are evenly distributed across ethnic and racial communities, that those who use them are provided services in their own languages and allowing for more flexibility to purchase services that are most useful.

Blakemore counts among her strengths her ability to come up with creative solutions that work for both sides in a dispute. She is also particularly proud of helping to change attitudes about people with disabilities and said she remains excited about her work despite decades of doing it.

“Every day in this job is different and exciting and a chance to make a real difference in people’s lives,” Blakemore said. “There’s a new case to be brought or new clients to help.”

– Staff Writer Psyche Pascual also contributed to this story.