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August 20, 2015

Christine Zenthoefer

Disability Rights Oregon, Portland, OR

This summer I interned at Disability Rights Oregon (DRO). DRO is Oregon’s designated Protection and Advocacy agency (P&A). P&As are mandated to exist in each state by the federal Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act of 1975. P&As were created in response to the terrible institutional abuse of individuals with disabilities that was exposed in the 1970s. Since the Developmental Disabilities Act in 1975, Congress has created a series of laws expanding the authority of state protection and advocacy systems. Today, DRO and other P&As serve people with all types of disabilities including traumatic brain injuries, mental illnesses, and developmental disabilities. 

While at DRO, I was able to provide direct representation to clients under the supervision of experienced attorneys. One of the main things I did while at DRO was write reasonable accommodation letters for clients. The accommodation requests I wrote included housing accommodations, employment accommodations, and public accommodations. Writing a letter typically involved multiple conversations with the client to gather information, talking with their medical providers, conducting legal research to determine the best legal arguments to present in the letter, and then, occasionally, negotiating with the recipient of the letter to determine the most appropriate reasonable accommodation. 

I also learned a lot about the adult guardianship system in Oregon. I reviewed guardianship pleadings to ensure that protected persons’ rights were being upheld. I also provided direct representation to several individuals who were unhappy in their guardianships. One of my most memorable guardianship cases involved an elderly couple who felt they had been tricked into agreeing to a guardianship. I had the most contact with the wife and she was very logical and lucid and it was not clear why she had been appointed a guardian. Their guardian was a private organization that charged the couple thousands of dollars a year for their guardianship services. The wife was very unhappy because the guardian treated them like children, did not involve them in decision making, rarely communicated with the couple about their wants and needs, and made financial decisions that the couple did not agree with.  The worst part was that under the current laws it was very difficult for her to improve her situation. This case was still unresolved at the end of my internship, but it definitely piqued my interest in elder law and made me more aware of how vulnerable elderly Oregonians are to abuse and exploitation.

I also was able to spend a significant amount of time at the Oregon State Hospital in Salem since DRO closely monitors the hospital. I went to several trainings, talked with patients, reviewed abuse investigation reports, attended meetings with hospital administration, observed and assisted with involuntary medication hearings at the hospital, and reviewed hospital policies.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed my experience at DRO. My attorney mentors were very supportive and positive. They were always available to answer my questions and discuss cases with me. I had a fair amount of latitude to choose the projects I worked on and I was able to learn about a wide variety of issues impacting individuals with disabilities. I’m so grateful for the funding I received through the PILP program and I know it would have been very hard to have this experience without PILP.