For attorney Mary C. Vargas, it's rare to have a visitor in her co-working office in Frederick.
“Almost all of our clients are not here,” said Vargas, who works with partner Michael Stein, on cases all across the U.S.
They've taken several cases representing deaf students trying to access higher education, occupational training or medical school. Most recently, a client named Zachary Featherstone was able to start school Tuesday at Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences.
Vargas, of Emmitsburg, said she first became passionate about disability rights as a fifth-grader baby-sitting a deaf child.
After graduating from law school, she began working at the National Association of the Deaf through a grant program. About five years later, she was put in touch with Stein, a fellow who came after her in the association's program, and they struck up a partnership.
Since then, their firm, Stein & Vargas, has focused on taking cases they hope will make a difference in the world.
“We tend to choose our cases based on our passions, things that interest us,” Vargas said.
That can mean long hours on planes and in colorless courtrooms, Vargas said.
She and Stein, who works from his office in New York, began representing Featherstone in the spring.
Featherstone, who is deaf, was accepted to the college in 2013, but a dean tried to revoke his admission in April, claiming his presence would create a safety threat to patients and take away from the educational experience of other students, Vargas said.
She described Featherstone as a kind, humble person who called the opportunity to receive a degree his dream.
Vargas always remembers the moment last month when a federal judge in Yakima, Washington, granted a preliminary injunction, allowing Featherstone to start classes. Members of the deaf community who came to the hearing began celebrating.
“It was really emotional,” Vargas said. “That is a moment I will remember for a really long time.”
Vargas said while many know about the court orders that allowed minority students to slowly desegregate America's schools and colleges in the early through mid-1900s, it isn't common knowledge that many students still get access to higher education only by fighting for it.
“You think a lot of the civil rights battles are over, but that's not true,” Vargas said.
The Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990, but noncompliance remains widespread for many people with disabilities, including himself, said Stein, who is deaf.
“My goal as a litigator is to raise awareness about accessibility issues and to hold accountable those who know of their obligations to ensure equal access but nonetheless refuse to do so,” Stein wrote in an email.
Slowly, progress is being made for students trying to gain access to education through the Americans with Disabilities Act, Vargas said.
For years, institutions have relied on a 1979 Supreme Court decision that denied a deaf nursing student admission to college because of her disability. However, the opinion also noted that at some point, there will be technologies that would allow deaf or hard-of-hearing students to attend college without creating an undue burden on the institutions.
“That time has come,” Vargas said.
A survey published in 2012 by the journal Academic Medicine noted that a greater number of deaf medical students could help address significant health care disparities for people who are deaf and hard of hearing, the second-largest disability subgroup in the United States.
The survey of 56 physicians and medical school trainees found that they were able to work using accommodations, including amplified or modified stethoscopes, computer-assisted real-time captioning, interpretation and note-taking services. While institutions offered the accommodations, the doctors or students still had to invest the time each week to organize the services. About 20 percent of the respondents spent more than two hours a week organizing accommodations, according to the study.
Vargas said it is possible to have broad impact for others in the disability community if the right claims are made in court.
She and Stein have covered cases that led to accommodations for deaf students, employees, crime victims and suspects, lawyers and medical patients. They also advocate outside of the court system for fair housing and occupational equality for members of the deaf community.
“Law for Michael Stein and I is personal,” Vargas said. “Things that don't seem fair, it's nice to be able to fix them.”
Follow Danielle E. Gaines on Twitter: @danielleegaines.