By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Paul Steven Miller, a civil-rights pioneer

Paul Steven Miller

I was saddened to learn earlier this week that Paul Steven Miller, an accomplished civil-rights lawyer, had died of cancer at the age of 49. Paul was a dwarf, and in 2002 I interviewed him at the annual Little People of America national conference, which that year was held in Salt Lake City. Here’s what I wrote about our encounter in my book on dwarfism, “Little People”:

Another twist on the ambiguous relationship between dwarfism and disability can be seen in the career of Paul Steven Miller, a lawyer who is well known for his work on behalf of disability rights. Miller, a Clinton appointee to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), whose term expires in mid-2004, is an achondroplastic dwarf, but his advocacy work has had little to do with dwarfism. Yet Miller learned about dwarfism as a social disability early on: despite graduating near the top of his class at Harvard Law School, he interviewed with forty-five law firms without getting a single offer.

“I was basically told by one of the lawyers at one firm that even though they didn’t have a problem with my size, they thought that their clients would think they were running a circus freak show if I was a lawyer in their firm,” Miller told me. I was so taken aback that I asked if the lawyer had really said that. “Yeah,” Miller replied evenly. “At that time it was before the passage of the ADA, it was before it was really illegal. And people were much less subtle about it.”

Eventually, Miller found work with a law firm in Los Angeles and got caught up in the disability-rights movement when he became director of litigation for the nonprofit Western Law Center for Disability Rights. His most famous client was a television news anchor named Bree Walker Lampley, who had a mild disability known as ectrodactyly, in which the bones of the fingers and toes are partially fused. A person with this condition appears to have webbed hands and feet, although in Walker Lampley’s case it did not so much as prevent her from using a typewriter.

Miller became involved when a radio talk-show host and her ill-informed callers blasted Walker Lampley for becoming pregnant with a child who might also have ectrodactyly. One caller — a Claire from Oceanside — ignorantly ranted, “I would rather not be alive than have a disease like that.” With Miller’s help, Walker Lampley filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission, charging that the station had violated the terms of its license by spreading hate. The case ultimately failed, but she and Miller had made their point. And Walker Lampley gave birth to a healthy son who, like her, had ectrodactyly.

Much of Miller’s practice sounds considerably more routine by today’s standards, but it was groundbreaking in the 1980s — architectural access cases, school and job discrimination, suing the California state government and local officials. “It was tremendously exciting for me and the others at the center,” he told me, “because we were just making it up as we went along.”

Miller served on Bill Clinton’s transition team in 1992 and worked as a White House liaison to the disability community until 1994, when Clinton named him to the EEOC, which enforces federal discrimination laws. On the day that I met him, at LPA’s 2002 national conference in Salt Lake City, he had just finished a breakfast meeting with the chief justice of Utah’s state supreme court. That evening, he would become the third recipient — and the first LP — to receive LPA’s Award for Promoting Awareness of Individuals with Dwarfism. Forty-one years old, balding, with owlish glasses, Miller gets around with a cane to relieve his achondroplasia-related back problems.

I asked him about his view of the relationship between dwarfism in particular and the disability-rights movement in general — a nexus where he has spent much of his life. “I think that what is beginning to happen is that the organized LPA community is really linking arms and becoming an organizational part of the greater disability community,” he replied. “I think it’s part and parcel of the identity of LPA changing over the past five years or so, and of LPA having, not an identity crisis, but sort of morphing its identity into something larger than the social club that it may have been a number of years ago. I think it’s fair to say that LPA as an organization is not really an active player in the broader disability movement at the national level. But I think that that’s the direction we’re headed in.” He added: “I think it would be fair to say that I have always really connected the two experiences, both in my mind and my career.”

Paul was a great friend of the dwarfism and disability communities, and there has been an outpouring of affection for him on LPA’s Facebook page. He was a man of many accomplishments, and he will be missed.

Photo via the University of Washington School of Law.

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1 Comment

  1. C.E. Stead

    DK – I’m sorry for the loss of your acquaintence. Unless you are affected, I don’t think people realize how big a deal the ADA was.

    Back in the 1970’s I was a MassRehab client and they trained me as a Keypunch operator (which was a VERY cool thing back then, almost like being a web designer in the 90’s). They sent me to a local bank, which had said they would hire from MassRehab as a community gesture. When I arrived, the HR person said, “Oh. But we were looking for somebody in a wheelchair. We could never allow somebody with a disabiltiy like YOURS to interact with the PUBLIC, and we want the person out in front so we can show our committment.”

    I do disagree with his suit, though. If you don’t let people make ignorant remarks (as opposed to actual hate and denigration) and then engage them, they’ll never learn any different and the attitude is merely driven underground.

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