July 20, 2021
Amplify Inclusion Podcast
Welcome to Amplify Inclusion, a podcast where we share authentic stories of inclusion in action.
Andrés Gallegos, National Healthcare Attorney and Chair of the National Council on Disability, shares his personal story and discusses barriers to healthcare for people with disabilities. Listen now or view the full transcript below.
This episode was co-produced and engineered by Subframe Sound with music courtesy of Nealle DiPaolo. This season is made possible thanks to generous contributions from First Bank of Highland Park and members of the Aspire community.
Welcome to Amplify Inclusion, I’m Clare from Aspire. Thanks for joining us for real stories and conversations about the power and importance of disability inclusion. This season, we’re excited to feature monthly interviews with thought leaders, activists and advocates of the disability inclusion movement. We remain focused on shifting mindsets, starting conversations and amplifying the perspectives and voices of people with disabilities. We’re proud to kick off season 3 with a two-part episode featuring Andres Gallegos, National Health Care Attorney and Chair of the National Council on Disability. Andres is a shareholder with the Chicago-based law firm, Robbins, Salomon, and Patt, Ltd. He founded and directs the firm’s national disability rights practice, which focuses on improving access to healthcare and wellness programs for people with disabilities. Andres was named Chairman of the National Council on Disability by President Biden on January 20th, 2021. Andres is a person with a disability. Having sustained a spinal cord injury resulting in quadriplegia in November of 1996. This coming August Andres will join Aspire and our partners at Disability Lead for a live virtual event focused on equity in health care. I met with Andres recently to unpack some of the main roadblocks to healthcare for the disability community. In the process, Andres opened up about his own experience and his commitment to health care and disability rights. Today, Andres shares his personal journey. And next time, he outlines barriers to access and potential solutions. Here’s our conversation…
Andres, thanks so much for joining me today.
Clare, thank you for having me.
So, before we go any further, I did just want to take a moment to offer congratulations to you Andres on your appointment as Chair of the National Council on Disability,
Thank you. I appreciate that greatly. So I kid with everyone who asked me about that. The fact that I’m spinal cord injured for 24 years and use a power wheelchair, it was a good thing I was seated when I heard the news, it was just a complete surprise to me. And I was thrilled for the designation by President Biden that afternoon of his
inauguration. He had so many things to do, and one of the things he did was take time to designate me as the chairman, so I was particularly just pleased.
So I know Andres that you’re doing a tremendous amount of work now at the national and local levels. So if you could tell me about a few primary roles or projects where your energy is most focused right now…
So Clare, I wear two hats, even though I’m designated as the chairman for the National Council on Disability, that’s just a part-time position. I’m a special government employee, which means that I can work no greater than 130 days per year for the National Council on Disability. So, I still have a very active law practice here in Chicago. I am the founder and director of my law firm’s National disability rights practice at Robbins, Salomon, and Patt, Ltd. in Chicago. We have offices in Chicago and one in Glenview. And I founded the practice about 15 years ago to address the needs of people with disabilities, primarily in accessing healthcare and wellness programs. And we represent people across all categories of disabilities throughout the country with problems that they may be experiencing in getting into healthcare systems or getting equal treatment when they are with their doctor, with their dentist, etcetera. One of the projects I’m working on is issues in health care and improving access to health care for people within my private practice. Now when I wear my hat as Chairman of the National Council on Disability, because of where we are today, coming out of this pandemic and the detrimental and austere impact it has had on people with disabilities, particularly people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, I’ve guided our activities to be laser focused on all things Covid and making sure that we have now equity in vaccinations and also that we learn lessons from the pandemic and how it has affected people with disabilities. Particularly people living in congregate settings, and we are
looking at those issues as a council and in our capacity as advisors to the president, his administration, Congress and Federal leaders, we’re making recommendations so that the things that went wrong, don’t go wrong in the future. We’re also making a very aggressive push a Health Equity Initiative for all peoples with disabilities, all categories of disability. So those are just two broad areas that I’m involved with. And I’ll tell you, it’s been a personal and professional passion of mine.
As I mentioned, I’m spinal cord injured, 24 years quadriplegic, as a result of an automobile accident. And after I was injured, I received the best care at the then Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, which is now the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab. Well that that level of care there, that level of attention, spoiled me because I thought that if I went to my doctor or to any other hospital after that that I would receive the same amount of care and attention and that was incredibly naive. Because what I found is, I’m not receiving the same level of care as somebody who’s not disabled and when it comes to medical issues and health issues, that is just wrong and I learned quickly, it wasn’t happening to me but it was happening to others like me and that’s why it was important for me to take this on and to use my skills and knowledge as a lawyer to give some purpose and meaning to why I was injured. And I think I used it for the betterment of all to establish this practice and an address healthcare issues.
I do really want to revisit some of those experiences that you just expressed. I was curious if we could kind of go back a little bit further to start. I know that before your career in law, you also served a number of years in the United States Air Force. Correct?
Correct. That’s correct. Yeah. I spent 14 years in the United States Air Force. I enlisted in the Air Force when I was just 17 years old, graduating high school knowing that I wasn’t ready to go to college. I wasn’t disciplined enough. I was too busy having fun through my high school years and boy looking back. It was the best thing I ever did. I was irresponsible, but responsible enough to make the right decision and the Air Force is what I needed at that time. And I spent 14 years, I worked my way while I was in the Air Force through college and obtained a Bachelor of Science degree in business management from the University of Southern Mississippi and the Air Force put me
through my first two years of law school. I got out of the Air Force to finish my third year, full-time, and then transition to civilian life where I came up here in Chicago to practice law. Yeah, it was just an amazing experience. I traveled the world, I met my wife while we were in Japan, courtesy of United States, Air Force.
Did you always want to be a lawyer? Was that kind of something you had in your mind from early on?
So it’s interesting night, I have family members, I have an uncle who’s a lawyer, and I have an older brother who’s a lawyer and I knew I wanted to follow in those footsteps, but I again, at 17, and listen, in the Air Force I didn’t know how to get there from there.
But the path started to crystallize while I was in the Air Force and certainly the doors opened up to allow me to go to law school while still in the Air Force which is just amazing. So yeah, I think that was always in the back of my mind but I just didn’t know. I didn’t have a plan quite then at 17 years old and how to get there.
Sure. Yeah that makes a lot of sense and you know I appreciate you starting to share a little bit about the auto accident that you experienced later in life and how far into your law career were you at that point in time?
So I was three years into my law practice and we were living in Wisconsin. And I was driving from Wisconsin to Florida to visit my in-laws. My wife, and my two kids, at that time their ages were eight and five, they were in a car and the tires blew, and we were involved in a rollover. It was just the scariest moment of my life and certainly, it was just devastating. And by the grace of God, I was the only one that was injured. Well, I should say, my daughter broke her elbow but beyond that, just cuts and bruises for everybody else. But I was the only one that was severely injured I should say. You know, that was 24 years ago and there’s things that happen throughout the course of a day, or course of a week, course of a month, where I reflect back on what that was and reliving that trauma again. But, you know, we’re here. We more than survived. You know, we found a way as a family to do some, some good, as a result of some bad.
Yeah. And I just want to echo that, I’m so thankful too, that all of your family members are safe and with us still. And I can only imagine how that influenced your life in so
many different ways and you sort of touched on how, in the flash of an eye, you have a whole new identity. In thinking about that quick change in the way you were experiencing the world, what were some of the initial barriers that you recall having to confront?
The initial barrier was a mental barrier, because I had internalized, a lot of the stereotypes, the negative stereotypes of people with disabilities. And so at the time that that happened, as I mentioned, I was three years into my law career and I had one classmate at St. Louis University School of Law, who used a wheelchair, but other than that, I knew of no one, who was a lawyer, who had a visible disability and immediately my mind was racing. Am I still going to be able to be a lawyer? I worked so hard to become a lawyer. And did I lose my career at the same time that I lost my mobility? And would I be accepted? Will I be able to work? So all these negative fantasies just crept into my mind. And what I soon learned was that there are many more lawyers and people in the profession that have disabilities but weren’t quite visible. And I remember one of the first things that I did when I returned to work – first, I worked for a law firm that was incredibly understanding, incredibly supportive and help me do whatever I needed to do in order to come back and work as a lawyer. To the credit of my clients, it mattered little to them if I was able to walk, crawl or anything, they wanted me for my mind and that was still in tact. And so I was still able to give them the legal advice that I did before and I even worked on client matters while in the hospital in rehab, and that was important to me the demonstrate to myself that I could still be effective as lawyer. I didn’t have to reinvent what I was doing, just how I did it. I could no longer type, so I gravitated to a voice-activated software program that types on the screen for me. And then I just had to find out different ways of how to get things done differently and then over the course of these last 24 years, I’ve been able to become incredibly self-sufficient and independent in my work and what I’m doing.
There were restrictions and barriers within the environment that I learned as well. When I got back to work, and every year if you’re a licensed attorney in Illinois, you have to attend mandatory continuing legal education programs. So these are organized classes that you attend for credit. And I went to one that was held at the Drake Hotel in Chicago, the beautiful iconic Drake Hotel – that is not accessible. And while my peers were
entering into the meeting rooms and the hotel through the main entrance, I had to go back behind the hotel to the loading dock where they kept the garbage and entered the loading dock in a freight elevator and go through the bowels of the kitchen of the Drake Hotel and a number of different other areas hotel, only to get access to the ballroom. And then when I did enter the ballroom, I entered from the front while everyone was seated and the program started already. There was over a hundred and fifty people there. And I was the only one in a wheelchair coming in through the front of the entrance. It was as if I were on stage, just announcing everyone to look at me. That time, it was just an incredible uncomfortable feeling knowing that I was the only one in a wheelchair there and I thought that I had done something wrong. And again, it took me awhile, really to embrace my disability and I credit my involvement with an organization that you’re familiar with, Access Living of Metropolitan Chicago, which is a Center for Independent Living. It wasn’t until I really connected with them where I learned to truly embrace my disability and being a person with a disability and owning my disability. And I tell you Clare, once that happened, everything opened up for me. Then the things that I saw as barriers I now identify clearly as problems that need to be solved and could be solved and I went about not complaining about them, but looking to solve them and that led to my you know, developing of a national disability rights practice. So yeah, there was all kinds of things that that I was having to deal with and having to prove, not just for me but for my family. You don’t lose your dreams when you become disabled and you shouldn’t lose your dreams when you become disabled. Just keep the dreams, but figure out a different way to get them accomplished.
Hmm. So as you’ve kind of moved through this over the past 24 years, a journey of self acceptance and, you know, understanding your disability identity, have you come across anything that still really surprises you in terms of the misperceptions that people have about disability?
So it doesn’t come as a surprise because when you when you look back at how Society has viewed disability, and this is society globally – not only am I dealing with the issues of how America looks at people with disabilities, but as being from South America from
Chile, from being of Hispanic culture, look at the cultural views of people with disabilities. And to this day within South America, disability is something that is hidden.
And if you have a family member with a disability, that family members often hidden as well. Things are starting to change but the culture certainly hasn’t embraced disability and people with disabilities as readily as one would hope. So, I’m not surprised given the like that, we went from the Charity model of disability, where people with disabilities were viewed as being objects of pity and they had very little to contribute to society and as a result of that, if the village couldn’t come together to take care of them then they were to be institutionalized or worse. they were to be just abandoned. We went from the Religious model of disability, where if you had a disability it’s because somebody in your family committed a sin against God and God has taken this view and has decided to punish you by creating a child that has a disability. And then we went from there to now, the Medical model of disability that says individuals with disabilities are to be viewed as not being capable of exerting independence or speaking for themselves, but that medical professionals will always determine what is best for the individual because disability is viewed as a physical limitation, and if we can’t be healed then it can be managed in some way. And we’re evolving down to the Social model of disability where people with disabilities are saying, now, wait a minute, everybody has it all wrong. That the limits in our environment are created by society, not created by us. We are disabled by our physical condition, not by the condition itself, but by the societal barriers that exist. The fact that there’s no curb cuts, the fact that there’s no sidewalks. The fact that they’re making vehicles that are not accessible to persons with wheelchair, the fact that technology doesn’t exist to allow us to compete on equal grounds of somebody who is not disabled. The fact that you still view us as being as someone that can’t contribute to society. All those things are limiting, right?
So with my knowledge of where we’ve been, the things that I experienced today aren’t really a surprise, they’re annoying that they still persist, but, you know, I’m starting to see changes, right? Because there’s 64 million people with disabilities in this country and in our territories and with the Covid pandemic, there’s a syndrome called long Covid that is a debilitating condition. And we’re just starting now to fully understand what that means and that may create another hundred thousand people or more joining this disability community. So the more people with disability, the better for us that have a disability because then it makes it easier to be accepted as a natural part of human
condition as a natural part of life. And when it becomes personal is when people get them invested in making changes in embracing disabilities.
I’m so glad you mention that aspect of chronic illness as a disability. I think that you would probably agree that chronic illness and mental health are two of those areas of disability that often aren’t considered under the umbrella and where people often don’t self-identify.
And there’s a good reason why they don’t self-identify and, and that has to change, right? Because the prevalence of mental health today and Mental health conditions is startling. So, I’m dealing with, with a couple of issues, Clare, on behalf of two families, who have daughters that have Cerebral Palsy which limits their mobility and as a result they use power wheelchairs. These two young ladies found themselves clinically depressed last summer and when they were clinically depressed, sadly they attempted to take their own lives and fortunately, the families intervened in time and took them to the local hospital to get stabilized and at those hospitals, they tried placing them in patient at behavioral health facilities and they called collectively 13 different behavioral health facilities and hospitals that had psychiatric units, and they were denied admission only because their children used power wheelchairs. But when you talk about mental disability, Mental health and disability. If you have a physical disability, what I’m finding is that, again, that segment of the healthcare industry has not embraced their Federal mandates to not discriminate against people simply because their disability and that’s something that we’re tackling and it’s just scary to me that that still is going on.
Definitely, and in April you recently published an op-ed titled Misperceptions of People with Disabilities Lead to Low Quality Care. So, what was your motivation for writing this piece?
The motivation, Clare, was anger, frustration, and outrage…
Next time, Andres expands on his recent op-ed and the study that inspired it. Andrés [00:20:10]
“The study revealed that over eighty percent of physicians in the country view people with disabilities as having a low quality of life. And that how physicians view people, is how they treat them.”
Clare [00:20:24] Stay tuned for part two with Andres and click the link in the episode description to register for our upcoming live event. Until then, be a part of the inclusive movement by rating and subscribing to Amplify Inclusion. This episode was co-produced and engineered by Subframe Sound. This season is made possible by generous contributions from First Bank of Highland Park and members of the Aspire community. (light music)
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