On June 23rd, DRDC’s Mary Nell Clark celebrated her 20th anniversary at University Legal Services (ULS)! As Managing Attorney, Mary Nell is instrumental to DRDC’s advocacy on behalf of DC residents with disabilities. We take this opportunity to celebrate her career and thank her for her wonderful work!
Mary Nell is originally from Texas, where she taught fourth grade before earning her law degree. She also taught primary school children in Mexico for a year, an experience that allowed her to witness the impact that systemic inequalities have on individuals and communities. During this time, Mary Nell developed a commitment to advocacy. She wished to not only support the individual children she worked with but also challenge the oppressive systems that impacted them. Therefore, Mary Nell decided to become a lawyer and began her studies at the University of Texas School of Law.
After law school, Mary Nell moved to DC. She first worked at a law firm and then at the Department of Justice (DOJ), where she handled large class action lawsuits for almost ten years. Because of her experience as a teacher, Mary Nell especially enjoyed working on education issues at the DOJ. As the mother of two children with disabilities, she also became interested in issues related to special education in DC and disability rights work. This is when Mary Nell came across the Washington Post job posting that introduced her to ULS.
She quickly jumped on the opportunity to focus her work on disability rights and joined ULS as Managing Attorney in 2003. She first worked mainly on DRDC’s Protection and Advocacy for Individuals with Mental Illness (PAIMI) program. During this time, she acted as lead counsel in ULS’s 2005 lawsuit against St. Elizabeths Hospital (DC’s public psychiatric facility). She also led efforts in a class action lawsuit against one of DC’s mental health providers to end the financial exploitation of people with disabilities in the District. Eventually, Mary Nell also began to advocate under DRDC’s Protection and Advocacy for Individuals with Developmental Disabilities (PADD) and Protection and Advocacy for Individuals with Traumatic Brain Injury (PATBI) programs – work that she continues today.
Mary Nell’s advocacy against St. Elizabeths’ inhumane practices is one of her proudest accomplishments. Although much work remains to be done, Mary Nell and ULS’s lawsuit and monitoring efforts made St. Elizabeths a less crowded and more transparent institution. Mary Nell is also especially proud of the work she’s done advocating to make DC’s school system more inclusive for children with disabilities. She started out as one of the lone voices in the movement, motivated by her personal and professional commitments to disability rights and education. Now, partly because of her advocacy, inclusion and school accessibility are widely discussed in the District (see, for example, this month’s piece on the Out of School Time bill on our website!). And, even if still far from reaching the goal of true inclusion, DRDC continues to push for this human right.
Today, Mary Nell works on the PAIMI, PADD, and TBI programs. Along with DRDC’s wonderful team, she investigates and reports on DC’s service providers (see, for instance, DRDC’s latest report on St. Elizabeths on our website), advocates on behalf of individual DRDC clients with disabilities, and conducts systemic advocacy through cases like MJ v. District of Columbia (read our latest update on this case on our website!). When she’s not working, Mary Nell enjoys hiking and spending time with her family. In fact, she is currently doing both in Alaska with her two sons. We thank Mary Nell for the past twenty years and look forward to more!
Image description: Mary Nell and her two sons on a hiking trip. Mary Nell, a white woman wearing sunglasses and a green baseball cap, stands in the middle of her two sons, two white men wearing sunglasses, at the edge of a cliff. In the background are a mountain chain a clear blue sky.
Published: July 25th, 2023