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Broadening the Scope

Inside Equip for Equality’s efforts to serve and protect people with disabilities

Published in 2021 Illinois Super Lawyers Magazine — February 2021

For over 30 years, Equip for Equality has paved the way in advocating and providing legal services for people with disabilities nationwide, including investigations into abuse or neglect, legal representation and more. The nonprofit’s biggest office is in Chicago, with more than 50 staff members and attorneys.

Similar to law firms, the organization has a team of lawyers and attorneys to represent individuals or groups in class actions. The difference? “Our scope is much broader,” says Amanda Antholt, a senior attorney for Equip for Equality.

“Our work really ranges from doing individual advocacy to help people protect their own rights before they lose them,” she adds. “Not just suing after the fact, but to help make sure that their rights are enforced on the ground so that they don't have to sue.”

Equip for Equality was formed to serve as a watchdog and protection for the rights of people with disabilities after the Protection and Advocacy (P&A) system was implemented by the federal government in 1975. Federal law requires every state to implement a P&A system that requires organizations like Equip for Equality to exist and have authority.

The P&A system was triggered by a series of television news broadcasts led by journalist Geraldo Rivera that uncovered extreme neglect, abuse and lack of programming at Willowbrook; a state institution for people with developmental disabilities on Staten Island.

At Equip, staffers and lawyers are divided into three groups: the special education team, abuse and investigations unit, and civil rights team. The special education team focuses on youth issues such as ensuring students with disabilities have their needs met by school officials. The abuse and investigations team handle cases after looking for neglect or abuse and investigating inside institutions like nursing homes or mental health centers.

Antholt is a part of the civil rights team, as is Paul Mollica, who joined in September 2020 as a senior attorney. “I have a pretty eclectic docket,” Mollica says. “A lot of our efforts here are not to bring lawsuits … but to try and first to enable people who have disabilities to advocate for themselves.”

He offers different legal services to help clients, such as writing demand letters to file a complaint against an employer, bolstering advocacy efforts and, sometimes, filing lawsuits.

Meanwhile, Antholt spends most of her time inside Illinois state prisons to provide treatment for people with mental illness. As a team, they work collaboratively with the Department of Corrections, the City of Chicago and other state/local entities.

“Most of my work is not so much on that individual end, but is on the kind of large-scale systemic litigation,” Antholt says. She primarily works to ensure people with disabilities who go through the criminal legal system are treated fairly and humanely, which means they get necessary accommodations.

Both attorneys feel motivated by the countless ways to empower and support people with disabilities.

“I think that's just the incredible thing about Equip for Equality, because we can provide the representation when people's rights are violated and where there should be remedies. But we can also do all this work,” Antholt says. “We have all these lawyers to try to prevent the violation from happening or to resolve it on the ground, because people with disabilities are in every part of our society.”

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