America is founded on the principle of justice for all, yet justice is inaccessible to a large segment of the population. An estimated one million people in Illinois are deaf or hard of hearing, out of twelve million residents. This part of the population is often denied or impeded from seeking justice in ordinary legal matters such as family law, housing, evictions, personal injuries, wills, etc. due to a lack of knowledge and understanding. They often do not understand how the court system works or what their rights are. In addition, the courts are often ignorant about the special steps needed to ensure that these persons are able to understand court proceedings. Lawyers are reluctant or even outright refuse to take on deaf or hard of hearing clients.
The Midwest Center on Law and the Deaf (MCLD) is the first and only organization in the country and possibly the world that seeks to bridge the gap between the deaf and hard of hearing community and the legal justice systems.
History of MCLD
When Howard Rosenblum entered the legal profession in 1992 his practice focused on disability rights, special education, mental health law, probate and health insurance appeals. However, as the only profoundly deaf attorney in active practice in Illinois he was the only attorney known to the deaf and hard of hearing community as able to communicate with clients directly in American Sign Language. Due to the rare accessibility of this lawyer, numerous deaf and hard of hearing consumers from Illinois began to contact Mr. Rosenblum for assistance with many legal matters beyond the scope of his practice.
Faced with these consumers’ circumstances and requests for assistance, Mr. Rosenblum decided to seek out attorneys willing to take on consumers’ cases. He was able to convince acquaintances and colleagues in various practice areas to take on these cases. He discussed the communication needs while engaged in legal representation, and urged the attorneys to take on such cases not only for the betterment of the profession but also as a way to increase their caseload. To meet the increasing, entirely unmet demand for legal system education and referral services, Mr. Rosenblum founded MCLD with the assistance of David Jones, a hard of hearing attorney who also was a certified sign language interpreter. The organization was created in 1997 and opened its doors to serve the public in 1999 when adequate funding was secured and Karen Aguilar was hired.
Karen Aguilar has an undergraduate degree in Pre-Law and a Masters of Jurisprudence in Health Law. She has been signing since childhood, is fluent in American Sign Language and is a nationally certified sign language interpreter. With her legal education, her signing skills and years of experience in disability rights work, Ms. Aguilar is uniquely qualified to assist deaf individuals in understanding their legal concerns and in obtaining legal assistance.
With a single staff employee and the efficient use of technology and volunteers, MCLD has been able to serve over 500 direct clients and several thousands through the web site per year. MCLD is the only education and referral center that addresses various areas of the law. There are a few law centers for the deaf in the United States, but they focus on disability/discrimination issues only, leaving persons who are deaf or hard-of-hearing seeking assistance in other areas of the law with no place to turn. Monthly, MCLD receives additional requests from seven Midwestern states, states outside of our service area and from other countries.
Karen Aguilar, Executive Director, and Howard Rosenblum, Founder, have presented workshops locally, nationally and internationally. They are seen as experts in the field and have received numerous honors and awards.