'You Have Discussed Lepers and Crooks': Sanism in Clinical Teaching
Michael L. Perlin
New York Law School
Clinical Law Review, Vol. 9, pp. 683-730, Spring 2003
There is a robust clinical literature on how issues of race and gender may influence all aspects of the clinical setting: the relationship between student and client, the relationship between student and student, the relationship between student and clinical supervisor, the attitude of the fact-finder toward the clinical client. But there has been virtually no attention paid to the role of sanism in the clinical setting.
Sanism is an irrational prejudice of the same quality and character as other irrational prejudices that cause and are reflected in prevailing social attitudes of racism, sexism, homophobia and ethnic bigotry. It permeates all aspects of mental disability law, and affects all participants in the mental disability law system: fact finders, counsel, expert and lay witnesses. Its corrosive effects have warped mental disability law jurisprudence in involuntary civil commitment law, in institutional law, in tort law, and in all aspects of the criminal trial process.
Sanist myths exert especially great power over lawyers who represent persons with mental disabilities. The use of stereotypes, typification, and deindividualization inevitably means that sanist lawyers will trivialize both their clients' problems and the importance of any eventual solution to these problems. Sanist lawyers implicitly and explicitly question their clients' competence and credibility, a move that significantly impairs their advocacy efforts.
These phenomena are especially troubling in the clinical setting, in which students are exposed for the first time to the skills that go to the heart of the lawyering process: interviewing, investigating, counseling and negotiating. All of these are difficult for us (and our students) to learn, but this difficulty is significantly increased when the client is a person with mental disability (or one so perceived). The difficulties can be further exacerbated when the clinical teacher - either overtly or covertly - expresses sanist thoughts or reifies sanist myths. And sanism problems continue at every "critical moment" of the clinical experience: the initial interview, case preparation, case conferences, planning litigation (or negotiation) strategy, trial preparation, trial and appeal.
This paper will explore (1) the meaning of sanism, (2) the general impact of sanism on the representation of persons with mental disabilities, (3) the special problems faced when sanism infects the clinical teaching process, and (4) some tentative solutions to this dilemma.
Date posted: January 12, 2004