My good friend and former client, Sandra Mancinone Weiler passed away over the weekend. It is difficult for me to think of any other client or person who has shown more courage and a will to overcome the obstacles that life throws at us than Sandra.
Sandra was born with severe cerebral palsy. When I first met her in 1992, she could walk with assistance. Her speech was affected but she was understandable with patience and focus. Her entire body was wracked by the spasticity and involuntary movements that are characteristic of the disease.
The common mistake that people may make when meeting someone with CP for the first time is the assumption that the condition affects cognition. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Sandra was brilliant.
Before I met her, Sandra had already achieved great things. She excelled in high school. She went to college and got a graduate degree in Early Childhood .Education. She successfully completed her student teaching and obtained her teaching certificate. She opened and successfully ran a childcare center in her hometown, Wolcott Connecticut.
But Sandra wanted to teach. School districts would look at her fantastic record and ignore it once they saw her. In 1992, Sandra applied for a kindergarten teaching position in her hometown, and was denied the position. She came to my law firm seeking help.
In 1992, the Americans With Disabilities Act was two years old and definitely evolving, and I was very new to the field. I vividly remember my first impression of Sandra: I thought that it was very nice that this determined young woman was trying to be a teacher, but how could this severely disabled person possibly do that job. Many years later, I learned the name for my misperception: implicit bias.
But I spent the next two hours listening to Sandra and her aide describe how she could not only capably do the job, but persuading me that she would be an extraordinary teacher. The state of Connecticut Bureau of Rehabilitative Service provided her with an aide who could assist her in overcoming her physical limitations. But there was no doubt, Sandra would be the teacher.
The justness of Sandra’s cause inspired me to fight hard. I was willing to jump on the railroad tracks for her. The next day I drafted a Motion for a Preliminary Injunction to prevent the Town of Wolcott from hiring any more teachers until they gave Sandra a job. The case was placed on an expedited track and over the next six months, Sandra and I went to war against the Wolcott Board of Education. As a young lawyer, there could be nothing more exhilarating than giving 150% for such a worthwhile cause and deserving client. My law firm, on the other hand, had appropriate concerns about whether we would ever get compensated for our efforts.
The litigation of the case was intense for both Sandra, her aide, and me. The Town, fearful of the risks and controversy that they feared would result from hiring Sandra, engaged in a scorched earth strategy intended to intimidate both her and me. They deposed her entire family looking for dirt. We fought and I lost patience when Sandra fell short of my expectations in the litigation. Her aide would scream at me for being insensitive.
But I learned something lasting from that experience. Sandra Weiler was not just a cause, a saint to be put on a pedestal. She was a human being, and she had strengths and flaws just like everyone else. When I got angry or impatient because she was not the perfect witness, I treated her like any other client who needed to do better to win her case. it suddenly stuck me that I had stopped seeing Sandra as this frail disabled person in need of my sympathy. I stopped thinking about her disability at all. Sandra taught me not to see my clients as a cause where they had to measure up to my idealistic vision of a fight for justice; they were real people, living in an imperfect world. Through my education and experience I was fortunate to be able to level the playing field in the legal system and help them move forward.
On the eve of trial, Wolcott wanted to try to settle the case. Judge Robert Chatigny had just been appointed to the federal bench and mediated the case. During the mediation, Wolcott expressed their concerns about taking on Sandra as a long-term teacher, but also expressed some very real desire to find a way for Sandra to move forward in a positive way. I will never forget how Judge Chatigny spoke to Sandra with incredible respect and allowed her to feel heard.
After meeting with Judge Chatigny, Sandra, her aide, and I met to discuss what to do next. Sandra’s aide and I wanted to go forward and go to trial, but Sandra, quietly and firmly, stated that she wanted to settle the case. It was her decision, as it should have been.
When I got back to my office, I spoke about the process that had led to the resolution of the case with Janet Arterton, who was a partner in my firm at the time, but would shortly become a federal judge. Janet (Judge Arterton) explained that people like Sandra Weiler are frequently not seen as who they really are, and are readily dismissed. The litigation and the mediation validated her and forced Wolcott and the system to take her seriously. Above all, Judge Chatigny’s empathy and respect towards Sandra enabled her to resolve the case and move forward.
Wolcott was true to their word. The terms of the settlement opened up lifetime opportunities for Sandra. She became a long-term substitute teacher at Wolcott, an adjunct professor at Southern Connecticut State University, a lecturer for the state of Connecticut Board of Education about diversity issues, and a consultant. And, by the way, the settlement gave Sandra the money to purchase her home in Wolcott, where she lived for the next thirty years.
My relationship with Sandra did not end after the case ended. I was her “lawyer” and I also became her friend.
Sandra would have people working for her as aides. These people were supposed to help her and make her life easier. Invariably, their own “issues” changed the dynamic, and Sandra would become the caregiver to them. The worst example of this came several years later, when Sandra hired a relative as the director for her preschool and her personal aide. In 1998 – 1999, Sandra became ill and required hospitalizations on several occasions. Between 1997 – 1999, the relative stole over $32,000 from the business, and failed to pay Sandra’s taxes. This betrayal nearly destroyed her business and was a bitter lesson in trust.
But Sandra came roaring back. The internet and email became a godsend to Sandra. She could communicate and express herself without impediment. She met a man over the internet who lived in Washington State. A friendship began that blossomed into one of the most amazing romances I have ever witnessed. Dwain Weiler was quadriplegic. These two severely handicapped people refused to let their physical limitations and three thousand miles prevent them from being together. They got married over the objections and concerns of both of their families. Sandra sent me pictures of their honeymoon, a Caribbean cruise, complete with their nurses and aides.
Dwain was the love of Sandra’s life. But happily ever after was not in the cards. Dwain passed away all too soon.
Sandra’s life entered another difficult phase. She battled depression and bladder cancer. She had to undergo fourteen surgeries. She could no longer teach, and as she became weaker, her speech and ability to walk deteriorated.
In 2014, Sandra’s house went into foreclosure. Unfortunately, Sandra waited until after her house was in foreclosure before she reached out to me. Sandra’s first attorney had literally quit the practice of law and left the state during the middle of the foreclosure proceedings. Sandra got the money together to pay off the outstanding debt, but by the time that she sent the check, additional interest accrued. Although the amount was less than $1,000, a fraction of the amount due, Wells Fargo refused to accept the payment and went forward with the foreclosure.
Sandra and I went to war again. What happened next was like a scene out of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” We got the press involved, and the community rallied around her, raising money to help her out. Wells Fargo, sensing a public relations nightmare, capitulated quickly. They withdrew the foreclosure and forgave the mortgage completely. Sandra now owned her house free and clear.
Once again, Sandra rose from the ashes. She beat cancer, and in 2017 Sandra told me that she was in love again. She married Craig Osit in 2018 and seemed at peace. I attended their wedding. It was a joyous day.
Sandra was diagnosed with cancer again in March, and it progressed quickly. By the time I learned about it, she was under hospice care and unable to speak. Still, I had witnessed her come back so many times I still waited for her to beat what life threw at her and rise up once more. But she and I would fight no more battles together.
Sandra Weiler was a role model for people seeking to overcome severe disabilities about how to live a full and rich life. She was a lesson for the rest of us: Disabled people do not need pity, they need opportunities. She taught me what it was to face adversity and prejudice and never give up. Sandra was like Rocky in the First Rocky Movie: She might not win in the end, but she kept getting up, kept fighting, and went the distance.
Rest in Peace, Sandra. Representing you was an honor and a privilege.