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US Disability Legal Center Helps Cancer Patients

Millions of Americans are living productive lives despite battling cancer, thanks to progress in medical treatment. But some cancer patients who face workplace discrimination or the loss of health insurance need legal aid. A law center in Los Angeles is helping people with cancer, as well as others with more conventional disabilities.

Eve Hill, who directs the Disability Rights Legal Center at Loyola Law School, says cancer can be a disability, and that cancer patients who are being treated unfairly have remedies through laws that protect the disabled. "In fact, people with cancer face a lot of employment discrimination. And then, people with other kinds of disabilities have a lot of trouble getting around if they have a mobility impairment. There are still a lot of organizations, businesses and governments who haven't done anything to remove the barriers that they've built into place," she said.

The Disability Rights Center sponsors educational programs, runs a mediation service, and refers clients who need a lawyer to volunteer attorneys.

It also houses the Cancer Legal Resource Center, a joint program with Loyola Law School. Barbara Schwerin heads the project, which gets calls from 300 cancer patients a month.

Cancer-fighting chemotherapy treatments can cause fatigue and other problems. Ms. Schwerin says some employers are understanding, and help their employees by rescheduling work hours. Others are less cooperative, and she says their workers call her center with questions like this one. "I've been diagnosed with cancer. How do I work with my employer to keep my job while I go through treatment?," she said.

There are legal safeguards for people with cancer at the state level, including in California, where the condition is covered under the state's disability rights law. Ms. Schwerin says a landmark federal law enacted in 1990, the Americans With Disabilities Act, also provides protections for cancer patients.

"Theoretically, most people with cancer should be protected under that as being disabled. The question will also come up, though, as to whether they are qualified, can they perform the essential functions of the job with or without a reasonable accommodation? So I think it's meant to be a dialogue between the employer and the employee, and we really try to encourage that that dialogue take place," she said.

She says she views recourse to the courts as a last resort in resolving problems. "I really think most people battling cancer don't need litigation in their lives. We try to find very practical resolution for people. But sometimes we need an attorney who can write a letter to the insurance company, help somebody know what words to use to talk to their employer," she said.

In other cases, law students help guide clients through the maze of government and private agencies that offer assistance to those with cancer and the disabled.

Eve Hill says the disabled have legal rights, whether their disability stems from cancer, impaired mobility, developmental problems or psychiatric conditions. But she says some employers, schools, transit systems and others are slow to recognize that. "Some of it is ignorance. A lot of it is, well, I don't think it must apply to me, or we don't get any people who use wheelchairs here, to which I say, this is why - you have stairs so they can't get in. A lot of it is attitude. People are ignorant about disabilities and react with fear to them," she said.

The Los Angeles centers are working to help the 10 million Americans who are living with cancer, and the tens of millions more who face discrimination from other impairments.