Up until his death on Oct. 19 at age 49, 1983 College alumnus Paul Miller never stopped fighting for disability rights.
Miller, who died of cancer, was born with a form of dwarfism known as achondroplasia. A former Penn Trustee and a professor at the University of Washington School of Law, Miller played an integral role in passing the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act — legislation that bars discrimination on the basis of disability in employment, government, public accommodations and transportation.
At Penn, accommodations are provided on a case-by-case basis for students with learning, psychological and physical disabilities, according to Associate Director of Student Disabilities Services Alice Nagle. The accommodations include academic adjustments, accessible campus housing, transportation and parking, as well as “auxiliary aids and services” like sign-language interpreters, computer-aided real-time translation reporters and the loaning of equipment and assistive technologies.
Before Miller attended Penn in the early 1980s, the work of students and activists led to the passage of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, which prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities by institutions that receive federal funds, including universities.
Miller was one of several students with disabilities who worked with faculty and staff to install more elevators and ramped entrances on campus, and also to expand access to academic programs, according to Nagle.
Later in Miller’s life, former President Bill Clinton appointed him commissioner of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which he led from 1994 to 2004. Miller worked with President Barack Obama’s administration to assess candidates for presidential appointments.
Upon Miller’s death, Obama released a statement calling him an “invaluable advisor” and reflected, “In a world where persons with disabilities are still too often told ‘you can’t,’ Paul spent his life proving the opposite.”
In 2008, Congress passed another law backed by Miller — the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act—which prohibits employers and health insurance companies from using an individual’s DNA to determine his or her employment status or insurance rates.
UW law professor Anna Mastroianni, who graduated a year ahead of Miller at Penn, wrote in an e-mail that his continuing research on genetics “was a natural extension of his ongoing and well established work in civil rights and advocacy,” in which he used his skills “on the behalf of those who might not have the access or ability to do so.”
Jeffrey Brosco, a professor at the University of Miami School of Medicine and Miller’s classmate at Penn, said Miller continued to discuss the future directions of disability rights legislation even in the last conversations they had leading up to his death.
“He was thinking, ‘How do we get the ADA so it has grassroots meaning?” Brosco said, explaining that Miller wanted the law to be implemented with a better sense of the individuals it affects and why it is needed.
Brosco met Miller when they were both living in Stouffer College House as freshmen and the two stayed in touch for the next 30 years.
Because his research on developmental pediatrics and federal policy overlapped with some of Miller’s legal interests, they also wrote reports together at different times in their careers, Brosco said.
He explained that a key priority for the disability rights movement is to keep fighting for the full inclusion of persons with disabilities in society, working against the trend of sending these individuals to isolating institutions.
Clark Lombardi, another UW colleague of Miller’s, said that his friend’s longtime advocacy reflected his talent for “thinking big” in law.
“That’s something he was very good at, taking a step back and addressing the real problem” when other people might be “overwhelmed,” Lombardi said.
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