Photo of CLASI Executive Director Dan Atkins, Laura Waterland, and DLP Project Director Marissa Band

CLASI Executive Director Dan Atkins, Laura Waterland, and DLP Project Director Marissa Band

Laura Waterland, Esq., has retired as Project Director of the Disabilities Law Program (DLP) at Community Legal Aid Society, Inc. (CLASI) after more than 30 years as a dedicated advocate for children and adults with disabilities across Delaware. She will be greatly missed, but we are fortunate that she is staying on with the DLP in a part-time capacity through the end of the year, serving as a special projects coordinator during this transition period.

“Laura has been a zealous, creative, brilliant advocate for Delawareans with disabilities at CLASI, whether leading our efforts to improve parking access for people with disabilities, ensure that Medicaid services are provided equitably, or enable people with disabilities to live fulfilling lives in their homes and communities of choice,” says CLASI Executive Director Dan Atkins. “The ripple effects of Laura’s advocacy will be felt by our clients and colleagues for decades to come.”

Over the course of her career, Laura has improved the lives of tens of thousands of people statewide through individual client representation, systemic litigation, community education efforts, and her extensive policy and legislative advocacy work. After joining CLASI as a staff attorney in 1989, Laura spent five years representing low-income individuals in civil legal matters, including Social Security, public benefits, housing, bankruptcy, and disability cases. For the past 25 years, Laura has been an attorney with CLASI’s Disabilities Law Program (DLP), first as a staff attorney, then senior staff attorney and supervising attorney, and finally as Project Director starting in 2017.

Laura has worked tirelessly to advance the goals of the DLP, which is designated by the Governor as Delaware’s Protection and Advocacy System for people with disabilities. The DLP provides free legal representation statewide to children and adults with physical and mental disabilities to help protect them from abuse and neglect and to advocate for their legal rights in the community, including civil rights, compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and state anti-discrimination laws, educational services, medical services, housing, government benefits, and treatment in the least restrictive environment.

In recognition of her outstanding service to Delawareans with disabilities, the Delaware House of Representatives, Senate, Governor, and Lieutenant Governor have all honored Laura with tributes on the occasion of her retirement. The House Tribute, sponsored by Rep. Krista Griffith, commended Laura for “her remarkable contributions” as a legal aid attorney over the past 30 years. The Senate Tribute, sponsored by Sen. Kyle Evans Gay and Sen. Sarah McBride, recognized Laura for her distinguished service as a “fierce advocate for some of the most vulnerable citizens in the First State,” noting that Laura has “gained the respect and high regard of all who have the good fortune to know her” during her tenure.

“I am so grateful to Laura Waterland and the passion, dedication, expertise, and tenacity she has brought to the disability community,” says Rep. Krista Griffith. “Laura has tirelessly advocated for the civil rights of individuals with disabilities. Her work has helped people receive services they were denied, have access to equal opportunity, and be treated with dignity so that they may fully participate in our society. Through her years of service, Laura has removed boulders and barriers that stood in the way of the civil rights of individuals with disabilities. As a parent of a child with a disability, Laura’s work means so much to me because I know that my son’s life here in Delaware will be much better because of her advocacy.”

Among her many accomplishments as a litigator, Laura brought successful lawsuits or complaints on behalf of Delawareans with disabilities against companies such as Greyhound and SuperShuttle under the ADA, successfully settled a case against Delaware Express under the state equal accommodations statute, and, with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), settled comprehensive curb cut litigation against the Delaware Department of Transportation. Laura also won over $200,000 in retrofits to the covered outdoor pool at the Western YMCA through the U.S. DOJ ADA mediation process, and with the U.S. DOJ successfully sued a real estate company under the Fair Housing Amendments Act leading to over $1 million in retrofits at Rockwood Apartments and substantial damage awards for her clients.

Laura has also engaged in extensive legislative and policy work, resulting in significant changes benefiting the disability community statewide. For example, through her participation in various state councils, she recently worked with lawmakers to draft House Bill 311, which was signed into law in 2022 and explicitly requires places of public accommodation – like restaurants and motels – to make reasonable accommodations so that people with disabilities can access their services. The law also makes clear that people with disabilities have a right to be heard by Delaware’s Human and Civil Rights Commission if their request for a reasonable accommodation is denied. She also helped draft House Bill 175, which is being considered by the General Assembly and would establish statewide ADA standards for accessible parking and ensure the availability of wheelchair and scooter-accessible parking spaces.

During her career, Laura was involved in drafting many other bills that now protect and enhance the rights of people with disabilities in our state, including: the Delaware assistive technology lemon law; the state attendant care statute; the Delaware Medical Orders for Scope of Treatment (DMOST) statute, giving patients greater control over treatment decisions; revisions to the Advanced Health Care Directive and Power of Attorney statutes; the Delaware Supported Decision-Making statute; and the Jamie Wolfe Employment Act, which ensures that individuals with disabilities in Delaware are no longer paid less than the minimum wage required to be paid to other employees. In addition, Laura helped obtain policy changes making it easier for patients on Medicaid to receive life-saving Hepatitis C medication, and she has been deeply engaged in advocacy to ensure voting is accessible for Delawareans with disabilities.

Laura has also been recognized for her advocacy on behalf of people with disabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic. She was an integral part of vaccine planning efforts, always making sure that people with disabilities were not forgotten or overlooked. She helped make sure that vaccine sites were accessible and offered accommodations. She also advocated for early access to testing and vaccines for people who worked or lived in congregate settings, and for changes to Delaware’s Crisis Standards of Care to ensure that Delawareans with disabilities receive equal access to life-sustaining treatments even in times of crisis. She never backed down despite the challenges of the pandemic, and many lives were improved as a result.

In addition to her legal advocacy and policy work, Laura was an incorporator and founding board member of the Legal Services Corporation of Delaware (LSCD), a member of the Organizational Committee of the Delaware Combined Campaign for Justice, a board member of the ARC of Delaware, and a founding member and officer of the Delaware Legal Aid Workers union.

Finally, Laura has served as a member of the State Council for Persons with Disabilities, the Delaware Developmental Disabilities Council, the Governor’s Advisory Council for Exceptional Citizens, the University of Delaware’s Center for Disabilities Studies (CDS) Community Advisory Council, the Children with Medical Complexity Advisory Council, and many other task forces dedicated to advancing the rights of individuals with disabilities.

“It has been an honor to work alongside Laura Waterland and Delawareans with disabilities to advocate for civil rights, inclusion, and equity for all,” says Delaware Developmental Disabilities Council (DDC) Executive Director Kristin Harvey. “Laura is a valued member of the DDC, trusted advisor, dedicated advocate, and friend. Laura’s passion for her work was evident from the first time I met her when she was a staff attorney. Her fighting spirit, thorough and insightful legal analysis, and wise counsel will be greatly missed.”

“We are so thankful for Laura’s decades of service to Delawareans with disabilities,” says incoming CLASI Disabilities Law Program Project Director Marissa Band. “The combination of her intelligence, political savvy, and no-nonsense approach has improved the lives of individuals with disabilities in countless ways, from her zealous advocacy via direct legal representation, to her sophisticated, detailed analysis of pending legislation and regulations. Laura has also been a terrific mentor for newer attorneys and advocates, and she has inspired us all to stand firm and to not accept any nonsense.”

We wish Laura all the best in her well-deserved retirement and look forward to our paths crossing often in the years to come.