Written by Amber Harding
On November 6, 2012, Laura White, 45, passed away. At the time she worked in the DC Office of Disability Rights as a Compliance Specialist. Two years ago she was diagnosed with cancer. She continued to work until just days before she died. I’d like to reflect on a few reasons why she will be missed so much.
When I first met Laura about eight or nine years ago, she was an advocate for youth with disabilities and we were working hard to pass the Disability Rights Protection Act. I admired her passion and her expertise, and I loved her sense of humor and bluntness. When we were successful and the Office of Disability Rights was created, the first director was smart to offer her a job, but I admit I was sad to see her leave advocacy to work for the government.
I soon learned that Laura would never leave advocacy, though. She embodied what it meant to be a true advocate for change from the “inside.” The Legal Clinic’s clients immediately felt comfortable with her not only because she herself had a disability but because she was so empathetic and outraged at injustice.
One of our clients had been discriminated against and harassed by a service provider for months before she sought help from me and the Office of Disability Rights. When she first met with Laura she had already been interviewed by an agency employee who was investigating her claims. He accused her of lying and made excuses for her mistreatment. She was reluctant to tell anyone else her story until she saw how carefully Laura listened—and it was particularly affirming when Laura openly and bluntly told her that the service provider had clearly violated the law! Laura then shared the exact steps she was going to take to make sure it never happened to another person– and then took those steps. According to this client (who remains anonymous due to the settlement with the provider): “She was so dedicated to making sure people with disabilities receive the services they need and she fought for the truth to be told. She was so caring and effective, and I don’t know where I’d be today without her help.”
Another one of our clients whom Laura helped on several occasions had this to say about her:
My first encounter with Laura took place several years ago. I had an issue with Medicaid and I called Laura on a Tuesday about it. By Thursday of the same week, she was holding a conference in her office with me, the Ombudsman of DC Medicaid, and a pharmacist on the phone. Within three days of learning about my problem, she essentially solved it.
We had a few conversations subsequent to that when I had exhausted my more immediate resources for various issues and would contact her for ideas and intervention. She helped me on multiple occasions. She had a “take no prisoners” approach.
Laura could be most persuasive. It saddens me that she’s gone. She was the quintessential model on “follow through;” if anyone were to write the manual, it was her. If others who are tasked with helping people were just 10% as good as her, the world would be a better place.
Just one month before she passed, Laura assisted this same client with getting an inspection report from the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) — he had a roach infestation in his apartment and had been repeatedly unsuccessful in obtaining the report by himself. Even if a problem did not directly involve a disability rights issue, Laura empathized with the difficulties many clients face in dealing with government systems, and she took the extra step to ensure that clients received the respect and attention they deserved.
The following is an excerpt from a poem that Laura wrote when she was only fifteen, shared by her family at Laura’s memorial service. I hope her words inspire you even a fraction as much as knowing her did for those of us who were so fortunate:[….] Still, you fight for the summit, You are exhausted, You must progress forward, Do not be tempted to rest on plateaus, If accomplishments were based solely upon will, Everyone would own his dream, Work hard to obtain the peak, You might just make it to the top.
This is the legacy she leaves behind for countless DC residents whose lives were bettered because they had the privilege of working with Laura. The standard she set by her tireless advocacy and work ethic is what all advocates, both outside and inside the government, should strive to uphold.