We are so excited to welcome Karla Gilbride (she/they), who will be our temporary acting Of Counsel. To learn more Karla, her career, on being a disabled attorney, and why they’re working with CREEC, read below.
CREEC: What is your proudest career achievement? What impact has your work had in the field?
KARLA: There are two achievements I’m very proud of in different ways. In terms of the type of lawyer I want to be, I was extremely proud of the work I did in the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic as part of a team that brought the first public nuisance action against an employer that failed to adequately protect its workers (meatpacking workers at a slaughterhouse in Missouri) and a similar action a couple months later on behalf of workers at an Amazon warehouse in New York. I’m proud of those cases because they stemmed from deep, sustained relationships between organizers and lawyers where the litigation was part of a long-term strategy to build worker power, and they gave me an opportunity to practice the principles of movement lawyering that I believe in deeply. The second achievement I’m very proud of in the sense of it being a culmination of a lot of hard work was arguing a case before the U.S. Supreme Court last year on behalf of a restaurant worker who alleged she wasn’t paid overtime as the law requires. I was proud of my work on that case not just because I was the first blind person, or person who identifies as having any disability that I know of, to argue there, but because my colleagues and I made some creative legal arguments that I believe were instrumental in securing a unanimous victory for our client, and the law in the entire country is fairer for workers and others seeking access to the courts as a result. In terms of my impact in the field, I have always tried to work on cases that, if successful, would open doors of opportunity—from early in my career when I worked on ensuring that people with disabilities could use the same technology to take standardized tests that they use in school and at their jobs, to combatting harassment and pay discrimination in the workplace, to ensuring that developers offer accessible housing, to getting courts to recognize new private rights of action for people to file suit and seek accountability and systems change when their rights are violated. A lot of those efforts were pretty bold in terms of seeking to move the law, and they weren’t always successful, but I believe they were all impactful in terms of shifting the concept of what is possible for people pursuing equity and pushing back against entrenched power, and defining how the law can assist in those efforts.
CREEC: What have you seen change over the course of your time in practice for disabled attorneys?
KARLA: Technology has been an absolute game-changer in terms of being able to access information in many different settings and modalities. I can now use a braille display to read my deposition outline to help me take a deposition but can also edit the outline in real time based on the answers I’m getting, which is very different from how I would have functioned years ago using either hard-copy braille that can’t be edited on the fly or relying on a human reader or screen access software to read text to me. I also think that attitudes are changing in that more people are self-identifying as disabled than in years past, and there is less palpable surprise among colleagues and opposing counsel when they encounter me or other disabled attorneys than I experienced earlier in my career, but unfortunately we still have a long way to go to eradicate deep-seeded ableism in the legal profession, as well as other facets of society.
CREEC: What inspired you to offer your talents to CREEC at this time?
KARLA: I’m excited by CREEC’s commitment to bring an intersectional lens to all of the forms of advocacy it engages in—from impact litigation to individual representation to comments on proposed regulations. CREEC recognizes that disabled people are often simultaneously impacted by multiple systems of oppression based on their race, income, educational attainment, gender identity, and immigration status. I certainly know this to be true from my own lived experience and my contacts with the multifaceted, diverse and beautifully complex disability community. I am eager to learn more about how this commitment to intersectional awareness affects all phases of litigation, and I know I will have that learning opportunity by working alongside the advocates at CREEC, who from what I have witnessed already, are passionate about practicing their values every day.
CREEC: What does CREEC’s mission mean to you? What can CREEC do at this moment in history to move the needle for disability justice?
KARLA: I resonate with CREEC’s commitment to listening to the needs and objectives of, and being in close partnership with, the communities for whom it advocates. I also feel a sense of urgency around the existential threats on which CREEC is focusing its attention: the dehumanizing cruelty of carceral systems, and the increased instability and precariousness of life caused by climate change and environmental degradation. I believe that CREEC is bringing a necessary intersectional approach to some of the greatest injustices that this nation and the planet as a whole are experiencing now and will be experiencing for some time to come, and while those injustices affect all of us, they will have, and are already having, a disproportionately catastrophic impact on people with disabilities. I am glad CREEC is here to bring attention to these inequities and to marshal the law and other tools, in partnership with affected communities, towards creating a more accessible and equitable future, and I’m proud to be contributing in some small way to those efforts.