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Law professor honored for work on human rights

Photo by David Leifer.

Hope Lewis, a legally blind law professor at Northeastern University, has been named Employee of the Year by the Carroll Center for the Blind and the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind for her work as an international law and human rights teacher and scholar.

The Carroll Center, a non-profit agency based in Newton, Mass., teaches legally blind people how to adapt to living with their disability. The center is named after Reverend Thomas J. Carroll, who pioneered new concepts in rehabilitation training and vocational development for the visually impaired.

“I hope this award raises awareness about disabilities and employment rights,” said Lewis, who co-founded the law school’s Program on Human Rights and the Global Economy.

In 1995, Lewis was diagnosed with diabetic retinopathy. She reads standard-sized text with corrective magnifying lenses, employs speech software for voluminous journal articles and refers to a super-sized seating chart for classroom teaching.

Her disability, she said, helps shape her push for social and economic justice.

She is currently writing a book on the human rights of immigrants from the English-speaking Caribbean. Labor laws, she said, often do not adequately protect women who are forced to provide for their families by becoming domestic or health care employees in the United States.

“A recently enacted domestic workers’ bill of rights in New York allows employees to take one day off per week, establishes wage protections and addresses other workplace abuses,” Lewis said. “It seems like those are intuitive stipulations, but women in particularly low-wage jobs fall through the cracks and their human rights are violated.”

Her textbook, “Human Rights and the Global Marketplace: Economic, Social, and Cultural Dimensions,” received the 2008 U.S Human Rights Network Notable Contribution to Human Rights Scholarship Award.

The book, she said, is the first of its kind in the United States to focus on food, housing and health care as basic human rights. As Lewis put it, “These issues tend to get second-class treatment.”

Lewis has also blogged about the human rights impact of violence, poverty and natural disasters for IntLawGrrls: Voices on International Law, Policy and Practice. She blamed government officials for mishandling the needs of disabled men, women and children who were victims of Hurricane Katrina and the magnitude 7.0 earthquake in Haiti.

“Many disabled people suffered disproportionately or became disabled as a result of these disasters,” Lewis said. “Thinking this was a minor issue, government officials missed the boat on reintegrating them into rebuilding efforts and mainstream society.”