Paul S. Miller, 1961-2010
Paul Miller, a lawyer who was born with achondroplasia, dwarfism, overcame discrimination because of his disability and became a leader in the disability rights movement, died Tuesday at his home on Mercer Island, Wash. He was 49. The cause was cancer, said his wife, Jennifer.
More than 40 times after graduating from Harvard Law School, Mr. Miller received rejection letters from law firms. One time, he said, he was told the firm feared that clients would see his hiring as a “circus freak show”.
But Mr. Miller went on to become an adviser to two presidents — Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — a law professor and an expert on the intersection of disability law, employment discrimination and genetic science.
A professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, Mr. Miller was director of the university’s disabilities studies program. For 10 years before joining the faculty in 2004, he was a commissioner of the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. At the same time, he was the Clinton administration’s liaison to disability organizations, a role he reprised in the first nine months of the Obama presidency.
Andrew J. Imparato, president of the American Association of People With Disabilities, said of Mr. Miller, “He was the person in the White House who recruited folks with disabilities to take positions all over those administrations — assistant secretaries, deputy assistant secretaries, commissioners.”
Drew Hansen, an adjunct lecturer who taught with Mr. Miller, said his colleague had long been concerned about the carrying out of the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act. “He believed that judicial interpretations of the A.D.A. were more restrictive than they had been of civil rights laws because there was not a similarly visible mass social movement,” Mr. Hansen said.
In recent years, Mr. Miller focused on tensions between disability rights and genetic science. In a paper titled “Avoiding Genetic Genocide,” Mr. Miller criticized scientists for what he saw as their eagerness to use genetics to produce “perfect” humans.
“Good health is not the absence of a disability,” he wrote. “Scientists caught up in the excitement of genetic discovery can forget that life with a disability can still be a rich and fulfilling life.”
Calling him “a powerful warrior in the battle,” Dr. Francis S. Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health and leader of the Human Genome Project, referred Wednesday to a paper Mr. Miller wrote, “Is There a Pink Slip in Your Genes?”
Its purpose was “to bring attention to the risk of individuals losing their jobs if information about their future health risks were disclosed,” Dr. Collins said. “And the persistence paid off: after more than a decade of frustration, the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act was finally signed into law in 2008. Paul was one of its biggest heroes.”
Paul Steven Miller was born in Flushing, Queens, on May 4, 1961, and grew up in East Northport on Long Island. His father, Stanley, was a textile engineer; his mother, Barbara, a school psychologist.
Mr. Miller graduated summa cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania in 1983 and received his law degree from Harvard three years later. He then began his difficult job search. He was eventually hired by a Los Angeles law firm, Manatt, Phelps & Phillips. By 1990, he was director of litigation for the disability rights law center at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. That led to his position in the Clinton administration.
In 1997, he married Jennifer Coletti Mechem, who at the time was disability policy coordinator at the Department of Education; Ms. Mechem is hearing impaired.
Besides his wife, Mr. Miller is survived by two daughters, Naomi and Delia; two sisters, Marjorie Piquiera and Nancy Miller; a stepsister, Susan Wolfert, and a stepbrother, Marc Freyberg.
When the University of Washington named Mr. Miller its Henry M. Jackson professor of law in 2008, his colleague Anna Mastroianni spoke at the ceremony. “Paul Miller may have been born a dwarf, but in reality he is a giant,” she said. “We are all better for seeing a little further from the perch of his shoulders.”