The Colorado Disability Bar Association: A Diversity Bar in the Making

Updated: Jun 29

What happens when two driven legal minds are friends (the authors), each has a qualifying disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and they both recognize the value that people with disabilities bring to the practice of law but also acknowledge the barriers those same people can face in our profession? What results is the concept for a diversity bar association.


Colorado currently has approximately seven active Diversity Bar Associations.[i] For historically marginalized communities, such associations have been critical to ensure meaningful inclusivity within our profession. The invaluable work of these associations promotes the interests of their respective members, encourages the professional development of attorneys, fosters the exchange of information and ideas, educates the bar and the larger community on the life perspectives of those specific groups, and provides opportunities for fellowship and a forum to express opinions and positions amongst their members. While some specialty and diversity bar associations have sections that focus on areas of law that might affect, directly or indirectly, disability-related issues, it does not appear that Colorado has ever had a diversity bar specifically for attorneys living with disabilities.


It is difficult to accurately ascertain the number of attorneys in Colorado who also live with a disability for a variety of reasons, such as the differences in or broad definitions of “disability,” reluctance to disclose a disability, historical underrepresentation, and the like. As a result, the disability demographic is often overlooked but warrants representation and a voice in the legal community. Being a person with a disability is a demographic that any individual can join at any time, sometimes without warning, and most all people will join as they age, losing eyesight, hearing, mobility, or cognitive functions. Individuals living with disabilities often fear to disclose their conditions due to the stigma and fear that those in power will find they are not qualified, capable, or able to practice law effectively because of their disability status.


This all leads to why, in May 2021, Second Assistant Attorney General Anita Schutte reached out to Judge Sueanna Johnson with an idea of creating a diversity bar. Anita, who has severe bilateral hearing loss, and Judge Johnson, who is visually impaired, were colleagues at the Colorado Attorney General’s office before Judge Johnson’s appointment to the Colorado Court of Appeals. Anita’s hereditary hearing loss had progressed to severe in recent years. Where she was able to self-accommodate for most of her life, her need for minor reasonable accommodations was occurring with more frequency. On one occasion, her request for accommodations was ignored, preventing her from participating in a court proceeding where she was supervising a younger attorney. That circumstance left her feeling humiliated and frustrated, but also motivated to make sure the legal profession and the State’s judicial officers were better educated when it comes to the requirements of the ADA and how to be intentionally inclusive.


One meeting between Anita and Judge Johnson was all that was necessary to start rallying others with disabilities in the legal profession to this project. The pair learned quickly that people were more than ready and willing to speak about their experiences and promote the cause. Mere weeks later, a group was formed that included Anita, Judge Johnson, and founding members:






Kevin Williams, Legal Program Director of the Colorado Cross Disability Coalition Civil Rights Legal Program,














Brittany Barrient, Associate General Counsel for Vexcel Group,













Magistrate Jamin Alabiso, Jefferson County District Court,












Gregg Carson, Senior Assistant Attorney General at the Colorado Department of Law,













Spencer Kontnik, Partner at Kontnik and Cohen,











Scott LaBarre, LaBarre Law Offices, P.C.,












Matthew Simonsen, Attorney at Hutchinson, Black and Cook, and











Amanda Upson, Producer of the documentary The Long March and at Tuck and Roll Productions and Interim Director of FWD-DOC (Filmmakers with disabilities).







Julie Z. Busby, Executive Assistant to the State Court Administrator.


The group is comprised of talented attorneys with disabilities as diverse as their legal areas of expertise, along with committed allies.


Dubbing themselves originally the “Lawyers with Disabilities Committee,” the group got right to work. Anita, a member of the Colorado Women’s Bar Association’s Equity, Diversity, and Inclusiveness (EDI) Committee worked closely with subcommittee members Ruth Moore, Beth Robinson, Merrily Newcomb, Jennifer Guzman, Katie Steefle, and CWBA leadership Kathryn Starnella, Gina Glockner, and Kim Sporrer to create a “Bang for your buck” Continuing Legal Education (CLE) series. The series provides a forum for members to present innovative topics and offers free CLE credits for members. Anita organized and moderated the first CLE in the series - a panel discussion that took place in October 2021, which highlighted the Lawyers with Disabilities Committee and focused on the benefits of hiring lawyers with disabilities. Kevin Williams served as the legal expert presenting an overview on the ADA, and Brittany Barrient, Gregg Carson, and Judge Johnson served as panelists sharing their personal stories. The event attracted over 100 attendees resulting in several new members to the Lawyers with Disabilities Committee. The group was quickly invited to speak to other entities, including to University of Colorado School of Law and University of Denver Law School students in January 2022; the Colorado District Court Judges’ Association and Colorado County Court Judges’ Association in January 2022, and the Colorado Trial Lawyers Association Blockbuster seminar co-chaired by Spencer in February 2022.


With each additional speaking engagement, inspired individuals reached out to the group sharing their stories and wanting to get involved. It was clear that this was a long overdue, welcome addition to the legal community. Finally, people with disabilities had a place to share their stories, express their concerns, share in their victories, and come together to advocate for and be a part of real change. Indeed, as the group has gained the invaluable leadership and enthusiasm of other attorneys, law students, judicial officers, and administrative staff who work in the legal field, they have recognized that educating the legal community generally on the ADA is, in essence, an access to justice issue. For it is not just lawyers and judicial officers who might need reasonable accommodations to effectively engage in the legal process, but clients, witnesses, and even court observers as well.


Just over a year later, the group is in the process of incorporating into a nonprofit and has voted to name the entity the Colorado Disability Bar Association. The work of several new committees is well underway. One committee has begun discussions with the Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel regarding the bar exam accommodation processes. Matt and Brittany are spearheading a law student mentoring group connecting students with legal practitioners. An ethics opinion was sought and received concluding that judicial officer participation in specialty and diversity bars as either a dues-paying member or serving as an officer or on the board of directors, with certain restrictions, would not violate the Canons of Judicial Conduct.[1]


Feedback from members and individuals that have heard the group members speak has been tremendous and a common theme has developed: Legal professionals with disabilities are thrilled to be part of a collective voice that has been overlooked for far too long. The Colorado Disability Bar Association is a welcome, necessary addition to Colorado’s specialty and diversity bar associations, those latter organizations already inspiring, lifting up, and supporting countless Colorado legal professionals from their respective formations to date. The Colorado Disability Bar Association is just getting started, and its growth depends on the volunteer time and talents of its dedicated members. Anyone who would like to join the group or who has questions about the group and its mission is encouraged to reach out directly to Anita Schutte at anita.schutte@coag.gov and Judge Johnson at sueanna.johnson@judicial.state.co.us

 

[i] https://www.cobar.org/Local-Bar-Associations/Specialty-and-Diversity-Bar-Associations [1] See Colorado Judicial Ethics Advisory Board Opinion 2022-02 (March 25, 2022).

 

Anita Schutte is a managing attorney for Colorado Attorney General’s Office, Human Services Unit representing the Colorado Department of Human Services.


Anita has spent her career in public service and advocating for our community’s most vulnerable citizens. Prior to joining the Attorney General’s Office Anita served as an Assistant Municipal Court Judge, as a public defender, and represented children and their families in special education and juvenile delinquency matters in private practice.


A first-generation college student, she graduated with honors from the University of Colorado, Denver in 2000 and Whittier Law School where she obtained her Juris Doctor and Children’s Rights Certificate in 2003. She is licensed in Colorado and California.


Anita is an active ally in the LGBTQ+ community, serves on the Board of Directors for And Toto Too Theatre Company which produces works of female playwrights, and is a member of Colorado Women’s and the Colorado Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Bar Associations.


Anita was raised in Colorado, in her free time can be found in the rock-climbing gym, making short films, or on a hiking trail, and is most proud of her high school and college aged daughters.


Judge Sueanna P. Johnson was appointed to the Colorado Court of Appeals on December 2, 2019, and sworn in on February 13, 2020. Before her appointment, she was employed with the Colorado Attorney General’s Office from 2004-2019, first as an Assistant Attorney General, then in 2017 as a Senior Assistant Attorney General in the Business and Licensing Section. While at the Colorado Attorney General’s Office, she also worked in the State Services Section and served on the internal Ethics and Fellowship Committees. Before working at the Attorney General’s Office, she clerked for the Honorable John Coughlin in Denver District Court from 2003-2004.


Judge Johnson has been admitted to practice before the Colorado courts, the United States District Court for the District of Colorado, the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, and the U.S. Supreme Court.


She obtained her Juris Doctor from the University of Colorado at Boulder in 2003 and earned her B.A. in Political Science from Colorado College in 1997. During her junior year in college, she studied abroad at the University of Manchester in Manchester, England.


She is active within the Colorado Asian Pacific American Bar Association and is a member of the Thompson G. Marsh Inn of Court. She previously served on the Board for the Young Lawyers Division of the Colorado Bar Association. As a person with albinism and a visual impairment, she is a member of the National Organization of Albinism and Hypopigmentation. For that organization, she speaks to parents who have children with albinism, and was a featured adult in the book Raising a Child with Albinism: A Guide to the School Years.


Judge Johnson was born in Seoul, South Korea, and adopted when she was three years old. She is married with two school-aged children.

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