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Interview with Andrés Gallegos, Chairman of the National Council on Disability

Written by St. Cloud State student, Taylor Mulcahy, B.A. in Psychology

“I learned to fully embrace my disability and once I did, it became easier to advocate for myself and for others.”

Four years ago, Andrés Gallegos participated in the Pikes Peak Challenge in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He rolled up Pikes Peak Mountain in his manual wheelchair from the base at 7,300 feet above elevation to the mountain summit at 14,100 feet above elevation, which took him just over six hours. In doing so, he raised over $7,000 for the Brain Injury Alliance of Colorado.

Gallegos did not initially intend to become a fierce advocate (professionally and personally). After graduation, the Chicago native enlisted in the United States Air Force and spent 14 years in active duty until being honorably discharged. He worked to obtain his undergraduate business management degree from the University of Southern Mississippi. He then went on to attend law school at St. Louis University, working in their evening program for the first year until he separated from the Air Force to finish law school full-time. Post-completion of his law degree, Gallegos moved back to Chicago. However, Gallegos sustained a spinal cord injury in a horrific automobile accident in November 1996, resulting in quadriplegia. At the time of the accident, he was only three years into his already successful legal career, working as an associate attorney and focusing his talents on corporate and international trade law. After spending five months in the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, Gallegos returned to work as an associate attorney, having to reinvent how he did things. He was still working on corporate and international trade matters, and began working with healthcare clients, and eventually made partner at that firm and was with them for about 10 more years.

Gallegos then left his firm and started working at Robbins, Salomon & Patt after merger discussions between the two firms fizzled. It was at Robbins, Salomon & Patt that he started focusing on addressing the needs of people with disabilities – Gallegos did not embrace his disability until about 10 years after his accident, and began advocating for himself when he truly realized the depth of the barriers he and his community faced. It was this realization that lead Gallegos’ practice to transition from corporate and international trade to healthcare matters and disability rights and advocacy. This transition was fully supported by Robbins, Salomon & Patt, and led to the founding of the firm’s disability rights practice, which is now a national practice with its main focus of addressing inaccessible healthcare for people across all categories of disabilities throughout the country.

Under Robbins, Salomon & Patt’s new disability rights practice, Gallegos has achieved several stunning accomplishments that helped to change how disabled individuals access healthcare services. Their first case was class action lawsuits against the seven leading retail providers of eye examination services – LensCrafters, Pearle Vision, America’s Best, For Eyes, Costco, Sears Optical, and Target Optical – to make their examination services accessible to people with mobility disabilities who use mobility devices and cannot independently transfer.

Gallegos pointed out that for those who are physically disabled–if they cannot independently transfer from their wheelchairs onto exam chairs, an optometrist or ophthalmologist would either refuse to provide the examination or conduct the examination using a manual method that is not as effective or thorough as using modern optometry equipment. People who are physically disabled confront that same issue when needing dental care. If the person cannot independently transfer onto a dental examination chair, they would either be turned away or the dentist would complete a cleaning or treatment with the individual remaining in their wheelchair – an extremely uncomfortable and painful experience, particularly for the vast majority of people with physical disabilities who utilize wheelchairs that do not tilt or recline. Unfortunately, these concerns are rarely thought about by able-bodied persons.

Not only are these barriers leading to lower levels of care, but they also directly impact the health and well-being of the disabled community – persons with disabilities are twice as likely to be obese, and are at higher risk for unmet prescription needs and untreated dental issues.
Gallegos and his partners prevailed in each of those cases and the settlements required those providers to utilize rollers underneath the examination chair to facilitate moving it out of the way so that persons utilizing wheelchairs can position them in place. All of the eye examination equipment needed for a thorough examination is now placed on movable height adjustable tables or equipment stands for them to use. Additionally, Gallegos and his partners addressed the same issue at national dental clinics, specifically Dental Works and Aspen Dental, who were either dissuading people with mobility disabilities from obtaining dental care because they had no manner by which to transfer them out of their wheelchairs on to the examination chair; or were treating them while they remained in their wheelchairs. Gallegos negotiated settlements, requiring them to install overhead lift equipment for Aspen Dental, and Dental Works acquired lift and transfer equipment to use for those who cannot independently transfer onto the examination chair.

With this significant success, Gallegos notes, “We have addressed physical accessibility for health care services with a number of healthcare systems in Illinois and in other states, requiring significant financial investments to make patient rooms accessible for patients with disabilities who utilize mobility devices; ensuring healthcare systems can safely transfer us from our mobility devices on to examination tables and diagnostic and imaging equipment when clinically necessary; and have addressed communication access issues for people who are deaf, ensuring healthcare providers provide them with appropriate auxiliary aids and services to achieve effective communication.”

Gallegos and his team are now finalizing a settlement with a municipality in central Illinois on behalf of people with mobility disabilities who live in that region to improve sidewalks and curb cuts throughout their city, which are now unsafe or nonexistent. Furthermore, Gallegos discusses that one of the biggest misperceptions of people with disabilities is that they have a low quality of life– this belief has deadly consequences in the healthcare space, which society saw play out during the height of pandemic when people with disabilities were being refused treatment for COVID-19 because of physicians’ perceptions that disabled individuals had a low quality of life and therefore were not worthy of treatment, and were deprioritized for vaccinations.

This misperception can be changed, however– Gallegos explains that, “We need to have greater visibility and greater participation on the boards and in C-suites of healthcare systems, and corporations in general. We also need to ensure disability cultural competency is incorporated into curricula at the undergraduate and graduate level for medical, dental, nursing and other allied health professional schools.” The greater visibility that individuals with disabilities have, the less misconceptions and negative stigma will be associated with disability. Moreover, Gallegos goes on to explain that accurate portrayal of people with disabilities on television and movies will make a considerable difference in how people perceive disabilities and life with a disability.

Not only does Gallegos lead a commendable legal team in creating significant change for the disability community, he also serves as the Chairman of the National Council on Disability (NCD) appointed by President Biden on the afternoon of his inauguration. The NCD’s primary responsibilities are advising the President, his administration, Congress and federal agencies on all policy matters affecting the 64 million+ people with disabilities in the country and in our territories. The NCD is comprised of nine council members, presidentially and congressionally appointed, and supported by a team of 11 incredibly talented and committed full-time staff members. The NCD is the smallest federal agency in all of the government, but serves a crucial role for the disability community. Gallegos explains that the role of the NCD will likely expand within the next ten years, and are currently working closely with a number of different legislative offices framing policy recommendations, and providing comments and feedback to various pieces of proposed legislation they are working on that affect people with disabilities.

This advisory role is likely to expand, whereby, with increased resources, at very early legislative stages the NCD reviews and provides input in a more formal and deliberate manner to every federal legislative proposal that addresses or affects persons with disabilities In doing so, this expanded role will allow the NCD to provide greater input and have more influence to legislative and policy-making decisions. As his role as Chairman of the NCD, Gallegos truly is motivated and inspired by the opportunity to have an elevated voice, working on issues that he has focused on as a disability rights attorney–but at the national level– working with the leadership teams of many national disability advocacy organizations, and working with NCD’s multi-talented staff and council members.

All in all, change and representation of disability is crucial. Here, in the United States one out of every four people identifies as having a disability. Statistically, in the next couple of years, it’s likely that every family in the United States will have a personal connection to disability. The issues that Gallegos and his team are addressing are issues that affect everyone – today’s disabled and today’s abled.

With this, Gallegos concludes with a reflection: through his work with the disability community, “I learned to fully embrace my disability and once I did, it became easier to advocate for myself and for others.”

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