Last Sunday my client, Shirley Riley, passed away. In speaking with her daughter and her mother this week, it struck me that her family may not know the profound impact she had on the lives of other D.C. residents.  I’d like to share a small part of her story so that they and others will know more about the legacy of her fight for justice.

I first met Ms. Riley in 2009 when she was staying in the D.C. General family shelter with her daughter. Ms. Riley had a number of medical conditions, some of which caused her to need a wheelchair to get around and to have dietary restrictions. When she arrived at D.C. General she discovered that the facilities were not accessible, and that the shelter would not accommodate her special dietary needs. As a result, she struggled to do the simple daily activities that you or I might take for granted and her health began to deteriorate. For instance, every time she needed to use the bathroom she had to ask for help just to open the door, not to mention use the shower or toilet. Her teenage daughter helped whenever she could, but Ms. Riley never wanted her daughter to miss school just because she needed her help. She often had to ask staff or other residents to help her.

When our office got involved, we successfully advocated for a transfer to a more accessible shelter unit. For many clients, that might have been the end of the journey. But when Ms. Riley learned that she never should have been placed somewhere that wasn’t fully accessible and that her federal civil rights had been violated, she grew very angry, and not just on her own behalf. She asked me what would happen to the next person with a disability who came into shelter. What would happen if that person didn’t get a lawyer?

She decided to sue the city and its contractors for what happened to her in the hopes that she could prevent the same thing from happening to others. I explained to her that litigation can be incredibly slow and frustrating, that she would have to devote a lot of her time to it, and that we could not guarantee she would be successful. She didn’t care. She felt a responsibility to others and for this reason, she could not just “let it go.”

It was a lengthy and sometimes painful process. Even when Ms. Riley felt like she might not succeed, she still went out of her way to encourage her family, her friends, and even strangers on the street to pursue justice for themselves and others. (As a result, I believe I have provided legal representation or advice to nearly every member of her extended family over the years, including her grand-nephew and his mother just this week!)

Because Ms. Riley (and people like her) decided to pursue justice for herself and those who came after her, people with disabilities who need emergency shelter will not face the hardships she did. There are accessible rooms and bathrooms at D.C. General now, so no one has to ask for a stranger’s help to use the toilet or shower. Families are asked at intake whether they have any special dietary needs and those needs are promptly met—no one has to risk their health by not following their doctor’s dietary guidelines while they live in shelter.

The D.C. Department of Human Services (DHS), one of the entities Shirley Riley sued, acknowledged the impact that Ms. Riley had on homeless services by naming an Americans with Disabilities Act Coordinator position after her and putting a plaque up in the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center recognizing her contributions.  Even though Ms. Riley and DHS were on different sides of the issue, her commitment to ensuring that others in similar circumstances received the benefit of her experience was impressive across “sides.” One person who works for DHS had this to say about Ms. Riley: “I still recall the ceremony where she was presented with the plaque.  I was touched and impressed by the pride she took in the impact that she made.  That moment has stayed with me as one of those times when an individual’s voice represents the experience of a broader group of people, and brought home, once again, the importance of both the services we provide and the need to be vigilant and make sure we are doing the best we can by those we serve.”

I will miss you, Ms. Riley. I hope you and your family know that your advocacy will continue to have a ripple effect for years to come, getting us closer and closer to ensuring justice for all D.C. residents.

– Amber Harding