Champion for the disabled

By Robert S. Benchley. Originally published in Tennessee Law, fall 2014.

Corbin Payne has a head for business and a heart for justice.

The 3L majored in accounting as an undergraduate and plans to establish a practice providing legal services to young entrepreneurs. At the same time, his current work on the staff of the disABILITY Resource Center of Knoxville, a nonprofit organization that provides independent living services to people with disabilities, has convinced him that personal advocacy will also be a part of his future.

Payne was inspired to become a lawyer at the age of 9, when his parents rented the film “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

“I wanted to be Atticus Finch,” he says, citing the story’s central figure, an attorney who must overcome the complex interrelationship between race and rights in the small-town South of the 1930s when he defends a black man accused of raping a white girl. The irony is that, in a sense, Payne has already achieved his ambition. In the film, Finch proves his client could not have committed the crime because he is disabled. In real life, Payne spends much of his extracurricular time championing the rights of people with disabilities—and winning.

“There are a lot of businesses out there that will present a contract to someone with a mental or cognitive disability and then misrepresent when explaining the terms of the transaction,” he says. “The customer with a disability gets locked into an obligation they can never pay off.”

Payne’s response is to draft what he calls “a kick-butt letter,” which is sent out on agency stationery with his director’s signature. “In every instance,” he says, “I’ve gotten the offending company to cave. They realize they have done something they shouldn’t have.”

Through his work with the disABILITY Resource Center, Payne has also become involved in Access Knoxville.

“We evaluate restaurants in terms of physical access, how the staff interacts with individuals with disabilities, whether they allow service animals, and other considerations,” he says. “Restaurants and other places of public accommodation are supposed to be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, but many business owners think of it as an inconvenient expense.

“What I like is that we aren’t involved with enforcement,” he says. “We simply explain the value of including everyone in the community. With 55 million Americans having some form of disability, it means that improving access can increase their potential customer base by 25 percent. That’s when business owners sit up and take notice.”

Benchley is a Miami-based freelance writer.