Cynthia Waddell ’94 has spent her legal career fighting for justice and access for those with disabilities.
BY SUSAN VOGEL
In the early 1990s Santa Clara University may have learned as much from Cynthia Waddell as Waddell learned from her years at Santa Clara Law.
Waddell began law school in 1990, just after Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). She thought she would practice tax and estate planning and do pro bono work in her area of passion, disability rights. As a person with a life-long hearing loss who wears hearing aids and lip-reads, she became interested in the ADA not only in theory but in practice: How would it affect the lives of those with all kinds of disabilities? It was this question that would eventually lead her to hold city, county, state, national, and international appointments involving disability rights issues.
As a law student Waddell had difficulty hearing classroom discussions. “I couldn’t see which mouth was speaking,” she said. As Waddell faced barriers to her education, she spoke out and the law school responded, putting into place accommodations that exist to this day. “The University provided CART (computer assisted real time captioning) as well as assistive listening systems so that the class discussions could be broadcast directly to my hearing aids,” she said. “The law school also upgraded the wall telephones by installing volume control and lowering them so they could be used by persons using wheelchairs.”
As a Dan Bradley Fellow summer intern with the Employment Law Center in San Francisco, Waddell became amazed at the power of the class action lawsuit. Though she had been a complex litigation paralegal for eight years before law school, this Santa Clara Law summer experience got her thinking about “systemic impact and change,” she says.
Upon graduation as a Public Interest Scholar in Disability Rights, SCU President Paul Locatelli, S.J., retained Waddell as an ADA consultant. She set up and managed a stakeholders’ task force comprised of students with disabilities, faculty, administration, and staff. Today’s ramps and elevators could have a plaque with Waddell’s name on them. “The University was my training ground,” says Waddell.
Waddell became the first full time ADA compliance officer for the City of San Jose. Her expansion from the “built” environment to the high tech one began when a blind commissioner for the City of San Jose filed a complaint saying she could not access the city’s website. Fittingly, the first accessible website standard was for the City of San Jose, and its author was Waddell. Referred to as “curbcuts in cyberspace,” the 1995 standard was recognized as a best practice by the federal government. And this was prior to the World Wide Web Consortium Web Accessibility Initiative.
Waddell went on to influence legislation on Capitol Hill concerning Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act by calling for accessible design in mainstream technology and later in the drafting of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. In May 2008 the treaty entered into legal force. It seeks to address the rights of an estimated 650 million people with disabilities around the world.
Waddell is executive director and law, policy, and technology consultant for the International Center for Disability Resources on the Internet (ICDRI), which seeks “to increase opportunities for people with disabilities by identifying barriers to participation in society and promoting best practices and universal design for the global community.” This past year she served as the invited accessibility expert for the Department of State delegation for the World Telecommunication Policy Forum in Lisbon, Portugal, and was a keynote speaker at the Houses of Parliament in London. She is a frequent writer and speaker and her clients include governments, UN agencies, businesses, and universities.
Waddell, who has an easygoing manner and a light laugh, is creator of the friendly “Cynthia Says” automated tool that will assess your website for accessibility at no charge and uses her likeness for the avatar. Yaffee, who was director of admission when Waddell was a student, says Waddell “is straightforward and a problem solver.” Her “educational approach to disability issues makes her a good advocate,” she says.