Fighting Against Gravity for the Law

By Mike Ervin, Abilities Expo Ambassador

Linda Mastandrea, Chicago Ambassador to Abilities Expo.

Former Abilities Expo Chicago ambassador Linda Mastandrea always liked the idea of becoming a judge someday. But she hated the idea of doing what must be done to run a successful campaign to be elected to a seat on the bench. But when a vacancy occurred last summer in the 9th sub circuit of Cook County, Illinois, where Mastandrea lives, she decided to throw her hat in the ring.

"It's a process that's been in the works for about three years," she says "It wasn't like I woke up and said, 'I'm going to do this today."

Mastandrea has spent a good part of her career as an attorney working as a hearing officer for various state agencies, listening to grievances and appeals. "I learned I liked that process. I was good at it. I was able to be fair."

People she met along the way, even some who were judges, encouraged her to try to become a judge. But the idea of campaigning was daunting."For a long time I thought it's expensive, it's intrusive, it's political."

But the vacancy presented an opportunity that was too golden to pass up. "It was just a moment in time." Running for office has proven to be every bit as expensive, intrusive and political as she thought it would be, but she knows she can't have the reward without the struggle. "In order to make a difference in that way you have to jump into that process."

It wasn't the first time in her career Mastandrea was in the right place at the right time. She graduated from law school in 1994, just four years after the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law. "It was brand spankin' new." So she dedicated her practice to implementing the public accommodations provisions of the new law. She later served as a hearing officer for the Chicago Board of Education, hearing special education cases. These days she is a consultant for municipalities on how to include people with disabilities in their emergency disaster plans.

Linda meeting politicians.

So even though her focus as a lawyer has remained on serving people with disabilities, her experience in that regard has been wide and varied.

Mastandrea is running in the March 18 primary against a candidate anointed by the powerful Democratic Party of Cook County. It's for sure a step uphill battle, but Mastandrea says she thinks the "unique factor" of a female wheelchair-user running against the political machine has energized a new base of voters and supporters who might not otherwise pay attention to a judicial election.

If she wins, the first change that will have to occur will be architectural changes to her courtroom. Even though the ADA and other laws apply to courtrooms, there are still countless access barriers. "I can't remember seeing a courtroom where the judge's bench was level with the floor," Mastandrea says. It's as if despite these laws, there is a deep-rooted assumption that no one with a disability will ever ascend to the level of a judge.

But even if she doesn't win, Mastandrea thinks just her campaigning has had a lasting effect. "Just my running I think is opening a lot of people's eyes to what people with disabilities can do. It's a lesson on what's possible. Even if I lose, I've been out there, I've been meeting people. Even if it went no further I see that as a positive change." People with disabilities, she says, need to be "politically active, politically involved and politically aware. We can run for office. We don't always have to be on the outside advocating."

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