Emily Seelenfreund is an unstoppable force. A three-time women’s wheelchair basketball national champion, Teach for America alumna, Harvard Law graduate, and Wolinsky Fellow Attorney at the Disability Rights Advocates, she’s accomplished more at 27 than most accomplish in a lifetime.
Seelenfreund’s passion for helping others is just one reason she chose to work at Disability Rights Advocates, or DRA. The legal non-profit firm firm seeks justice for those with disabilities who have experienced a violation of their civil rights.
As a Wolinsky Fellow, Seelenfreund receives mentorship from some of the nation’s top attorneys, as well as the opportunity to work on prominent civil rights cases. Her fellowship project is focused on increasing access to New York City public schools for students with mobility disabilities.
“Education is one of the biggest tools we have for combatting inequity,” Seelenfreund said. “Yet many schools in New York are not accessible to individuals with disabilities. People with disabilities can’t always get into the buildings and they can’t always access the restrooms, the cafeteria, or the libraries.”
The DRA focuses on class-action lawsuits that advocate for one or several individuals, ultimately making a national impact on the lives of people with disabilities. All cases are done pro-bono and benefit individuals with a wide spectrum of disabilities.
Seelenfreund also chose to work for DRA because the firm’s interests hit close to home. Born with Osteogenesis Imperfecta, also known as brittle bones disease, Seelenfreund has navigated the world using a wheelchair for almost her entire life.
“I grew up with a disability,” Seelenfreund said. “I was born the same year that the Americans with Disabilities Act passed, and I saw how it impacted my ability to access education and live a full and independent life. I was really struck by the ability of the ADA to ensure a place for disabled individuals in society, and yet I knew there was more work to be done for the ADA to live up to its fullest potential.”
Seelenfreund says it was her own experiences in a wheelchair that pushed her to advocate for others, along with her life-long desire to help marginalized groups.
“As a teacher and as an individual with a disability, I wanted specifically to work as a class-action attorney,” Seelenfreund said. “I have the opportunity to work on one case that can affect countless individuals. It’s an amazing tool that enables civil rights lawyers to really make an impact.”
After her fellowship, Seelenfreud was promoted to staff attorney with the Disabilities Rights Advocates, where she works to further the rights of people with disabilities throughout all parts of the country. Most recently, she has focused on challenges regarding access to public transportation in the nonprofit’s New York City office.
“A large part of my recent focus at DRA has been challenging the exclusion of people with disabilities from the New York City subway system,” Seelenfreud said. “Over 75 percent of the system is inaccessible for New Yorkers who cannot take stairs, meaning they are largely denied access to the most convenient form of city transportation.”
Her team celebrated a big win for their efforts in June when a unanimous panel of four judges from the Appellate Divisions of the Supreme Court affirmed a ruling by the lower Court holding that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (“MTA”) can be held accountable for the widespread inaccessibility of the New York City subway system. Seelenfreud was interviewed about this ruling for CBSN New York.