America

Paul Steven Miller, Who Shaped Labor Laws Protecting The Disabled, Has Died

Paul Steven Miller graduated from Harvard Law School, near the top of his class and then watched classmates get hired at prestigious law firms while he got turned down for job after job after job.

Paul Steven Miller

Paul Steven Miller University of Washington School of Law hide caption

itoggle caption University of Washington School of Law

Eventually, an attorney at one law firm explained the problem to Miller, who was born with achondroplasia, a form of dwarfism. You're impressive, the attorney said, but the firm's partners worry that clients would see you in the hallway and "think we're running some sort of circus freak show."

Miller, who died of cancer Tuesday at the age of 49, was shaped by that kind of discrimination. He knew that no matter how much he accomplished, he still had to negotiate around the biases of others. But, in a bigger way, he helped shape the law that protects people with disabilities from employment discrimination.

Remember the television show L.A. Law? And the character Hamilton Schuyler? Miller was said to be a model for the lawyer with dwarfism. (After getting turned down by all those law firms, he eventually got hired by one in Los Angeles.)

Only TV got it all wrong. The TV dwarf was brilliant, resentful and brooding. Miller was brilliant, generous and optimistic. The TV lawyer was a lonely outcast, unable to lead a normal life. And when the TV character had to hire prostitutes to have a semblance of a love life, Miller wrote a letter published in The New York Times, calling the depiction silly (but also damaging). Paul proved it with his own life: He found career success, happiness, love, and was a proud father of two daughters.

His was an ordinary life—but also an extraordinary one. He advised presidents and changed laws. President Clinton appointed Miller to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. He served from 1994 to 2004. Then he taught law at the University of Washington in Seattle, a job he held until his death. He took a sabbatical in 2009 to work as a special assistant to the president, helping President Obama fill key positions at the Departments of Justice, Education and at independent agencies. He'd work a couple weeks in Washington, then fly home to Seattle for cancer treatments and a week of recovery.

Miller got out of law school in 1986, before the Americans with Disabilities Act could protect him from small-minded law firm partners. The ADA was passed by a bipartisan Congress and signed into law by President George H.W. Bush in 1990. The law made it illegal for an employer to refuse to hire someone based on his size — or based on any disability. At the EEOC, Miller sought to make the new law effective — encouraging employers and workers to sometimes go to arbitration. And Miller noted gaps left by the ADA. Notably, he argued for the need to prohibit employers and health insurers from collecting a person's genetic information and using it against them.

And last year, a law he championed, the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) went into full effect. It says employers can't use one's DNA to make decisions about hiring, firing or job promotions. And health insurance can't use that information to make decisions about the insurance people get or how much it costs.

In 2009, when Miller's aggressive cancer could not be stopped with chemotherapy, his arm was amputated. He dealt with the loss of that arm as just another inconvenience. But in September, he wrote a blunt and philosophical e-mail to friends noting that the cancer had returned and spread. He bought a camcorder. One of his last projects was to make videotapes about his life — about the ordinary and the extraordinary — to leave for his daughters, who are 10 and 5.

NPR Investigative Unit correspondent Joe Shapiro first got to know Miller 20 years ago when he wrote about a legal action Miller filed on behalf of a disabled woman in California.

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