Long Island attorney Daniel Phelan dreams of a world in which “no one with type 1 diabetes is left behind.” To accomplish this, he's devoted his legal expertise to fighting the good fight to make sure all T1Ds get a fair chance to succeed in schools and workplaces -- free from discrimination.
The New York resident is working through both his small law firm and the non-profit Type 1 Action Foundation organization he established in 2016, in reaction to realizing that so many T1Ds were not getting the help they needed to address educational and employment discrimination issues.
As a longtime type 1 since his teen years himself, Phelan gets it. While his story is impressive all on its own, the problems he’s addressing are infuriating and widespread -- especially in America’s schools.
In a phone interview, Phelan shared alarming anecdotes about the T1Ds he has helped, recounting how schools and businesses deprived them of needed concessions to allow them to succeed while staying healthy. In just the short amount of time he’s been doing this, Phelan has represented:
- A kindergarten child with T1D who wasn’t allowed to read his CGM numbers on his smart phone because his school deprived him of access to their on-site WIFI.
- A middle school student who was often sick and missed classes due to difficulties managing his glucose levels. Despite a doctor’s note and evidence that his and his A1C result was sky-high, the school refused to accept his diabetes as an excuse for his tardiness and suspended him.
- A high school student with a summer job at a water park who wasn’t allowed to take breaks for snacks and BG testing.
These and other PWDs were lucky that Phelan was available to step up to the plate and help them, because he originally wanted to be a professional baseball player.
Going to Bat for People with Diabetes
Diagnosed with T1D in 2002 when was as 13, Phelan was a dedicated and ambitious baseball player in high school, and later at St. Joseph’s College in Long Island and Florida Atlantic University. He was even invited for a tryout by an independent professional baseball league. When that didn’t pan out, he decided to attend New York Law School and after graduating in 2015, became a corporate litigator.
He was also passionately engaged in helping people with diabetes during that time. As chairman of the Young Leadership Council of the JDRF Long Island chapter and part of the organization’s governing board, he kept hearing about the problems T1Ds were having, including the lack of insurance coverage and struggles with schools and employers.
One particular challenge caught his attention: while the American Diabetes Association has a legal advocacy division that includes a network of attorneys, “parents were telling me that it would take them months to actually find a lawyer after they contacted the ADA.” Plus, he got the distinct impression that that ADA was more focused on the legal problems of people with type 2 diabetes.
To be clear (and fair), the ADA does a lot of good in this area. For example, they offer helpful advice to parents on “How to Resolve Diabetes School Care Problems.” But it was obvious to Phelan that there were major gaps between the demand and available supply of qualified attorneys and advocates.
So, while keeping his corporate law gig, Phelan established the Type 1 Action Foundation in 2016. During that first year, the Foundation was made up of Phelan and a cadre of volunteers, offering free legal advice and services to about 18 families from Long Island. It also held educational workshops on the legal rights of PWDs.
But that changed in 2017, when Phelan decided to shift that legal work from the Foundation to a solo law practice that he set up. Now, he’s handling discrimination cases full-time and represents mostly PWDs and their families. Importantly, Phelan says school administrators and businesses tend to take discrimination claims more seriously when they receive a letter from an attorney on law firm letterhead, rather than from a non-profit organization.
The Type 1 Action Foundation still exists and features a blog and various resource materials online, but it's being reorganized and will operate differently at some point in the future. Phelan intimated that its activities might involve his celebrity girlfriend, Meredith O'Connor, a pop star I would have heard of if I were 25 or so. Stay tuned!
In the meantime, he’s got plenty to do because too many T1Ds in his New York practice area -- and, of course, around the country -- aren’t getting a fair shake.
Legal Advocacy on Diabetes in Schools
Under two federal laws -- the American Disability Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act -- schools (with some exceptions) are legally required to make “reasonable accommodations” to ensure that kids with diabetes have equal opportunities and don’t face discrimination.
Too many schools across the country are either willfully ignoring that obligation, or they just don’t know enough about diabetes to fulfill it.
Phelan says the kindergarten kid who couldn’t get access to his school’s WIFI exemplifies an increasingly common, nationwide challenge: schools must be educated about the need to bend their rules a bit so that T1Ds can adequately use modern, data-connected D-technology.
That’s been true for a long time as insulin pumps have become commonplace and visible in schools, but now the challenge is even more daunting as an increasing number of students show up with smartphone-linked CGMs and other technology.
Whether the issues confronting students with T1D involve access to technology or other matters, most difficulties can be resolved by schooling the educators about diabetes, Phelan says. Sometimes all it takes is a phone call or meeting.
And yes, the fact that Phelan has diabetes helps him make the case for his clients even more effectively.
For example, when negotiating with the Long Island school district blocking the kindergartener from reading his CGM numbers, “I took out my Dexcom and showed them how I used it and why the student needed it, too.”
That did the trick. The student can now use is smartphone to monitor his blood sugars.
Enforcing Educational Plans for T1D Students
Phelan and his Foundation (like the ADA) have also assisted parents in preparing customized plans for children with diabetes. These plans spell out actions schools need to take to make sure students are medically safe, have the same access to education as other children, and are treated fairly.
- The most common plans for students with diabetes are the Diabetes Medical Management Plan and the Section 504 Plan (commonly known as 504s).
- For T1Ds with other disabilities, sometimes a more elaborate Individualized Education Plan (IEP) is required.
Parents need to be vigilant that these plans are adequate, according to Phelan. In one of his cases, the parents of a Long Island middle school student with T1D, ADHD and other disabilities prepared an IEP and negotiated accommodations for their child. But the plan didn’t include extra stoppage time on tests, access to WIFI and other things.
After a few meetings and the threat of litigation from Phelan, the plan was amended and problems were ironed out.
Zero Tolerance of Discrimination
It’s good news that Phelan and the legal advocates affiliated with the ADA are out there making sure that every “i” is dotted and every “t” is crossed in educational plans for T1Ds, and that other legal challenges in schools and workplaces are addressed.
But even if Phelan finds a way to clone himself and every PWD who requires a lawyer is able to get one, the need to hold schools and workplaces accountable will remain.
As the New York Times has stated: a “growing number of students who have type 1 diabetes… are not getting the care they need in schools such as insulin shots or blood-sugar monitoring.”
To solve that problem, the D-Community needs more than just talented attorneys like Phelan. Educators and employers need more schooling about the realities of daily life with diabetes and the legal rights of PWDs. And more PWDs and their parents need to realize they have the right to fight discrimination rather than passively accept it.