As executive director of the Disability Rights Legal Center (DRLC), Eve Hill has won countless battles for the disability community. But this time she gets the gold star: The Women Lawyers Association of Los Angeles (WLALA) recently honored her achievements with a Distinguished Service Award.
Nicole Bershon, the incoming president of the WLALA, recalls first meeting Hill. “I kept reading about all the groundbreaking accomplishments the DRLC was making in the name of increased access. I had to confirm with a few different people that this incredibly humble and unassuming—not to mention funny—person I was getting to know was the same legal eagle who was having all of these incredible legal victories.”
Hill’s accomplishments in the area of disability rights have produced systemic change in public accessibility, juvenile and criminal justice as well as health care. Today, for example, thanks to her hard work, Los Angeles freeway call boxes are equipped with TTY systems and are at a height that people in wheelchairs can reach.
The activist credits the powerful model for social change of the ’50s and ’60s as an inspiration. “I thank God for the Civil Rights Movement,” Hill has said of the demonstrations and sit-ins staged by African Americans and others who sought to strike down racial segregation in this country. Hill has said that the movement emboldened people who are deaf, blind, in wheelchairs and contending with mental illness, to fight against everyday discrimination.
“Pre-1970s, people with disabilities were viewed as objects of pity and charity. They were presumed incompetent to work, to be parents, to be fully functioning members of society. They were institutionalized, given government benefits, used as poster children for charities,” said Hill.
Acknowledging she has clinical depression, Hill said that people with disabilities sought many of the same rights for which African-Americans fought. “We wanted to vote, participate in families, go to schools, and do all the things people don’t want to do, like jury service,” she said. “That all started to push us towards the Civil Rights model.”
Since Hill became DRLC executive director in 1998, the number of programs the center offers has doubled, while the size of the staff has quadrupled. She has also spearheaded the California Respect-ABILITY Coalition, which brings together state and national leaders, organizations, advocates and virtually hundreds of people with disabilities to discuss major barriers to the disability community as well as how to address them.
Renee Wohlenhaus, the deputy chief of the Disability Rights Section of the Department of Justice, says: “Eve perseveres tirelessly and challenges everyone around her to do the same. She is a powerful combination of energy, tenacity and talent working to reframe the world view, as most people see it, in order to open possibilities for so many who are left out of the picture.”
A Maine native, Hill graduated Sweet Briar College magna cum laude. Then she graduated Cornell Law School with cum laude honors, and went on to join the Washington DC firm of Pierson, Semmes & Bemis as an associate. For five years she served at the US Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, in disabilityrights enforcement. She implemented the ADA Mediation Program. As the alternative dispute-resolution coordinator for the Civil Rights Division, she received the prestigious John Marshall Award.
Today, Hill is galvanizing the next generation of disability-rights activists as a visiting law professor at Loyola Law School, and an adjunct professor at the University of Southern California’s School of Law. She serves on the California State Bar’s Council on Access and Fairness, and the American Bar Association’s Commission on Mental and Physical Disability Law. She is the co-chair of the U.S. Access Board’s Courthouse Accessibility Advisory Committee, and the co-author of the treatise/casebook Disability Civil Rights Law and Policy. A Durfee Foundation Stanton Fellowship recipient, she also was selected to participate in the 2006 Stanford Executive Program for Nonprofit Leaders.
Along with her deep commitment to her goals, Hill displays a facility for working closely with various organizations to find common ground. Michael Geibelson, the president of the DRLC’s board of directors says: “Eve has an intolerance for mediocrity in pursuing equal rights for people with disabilities, and yet she balances her devotion to the cause with a demonstrated ability to find the middle on issues of advocacy. As a result,” he says, “she has been very effective in finding meaningful solutions that convince businesses and public entities to stay at the table.”