Advancing Justice for the Underserved and Oppressed
When Heather (Progler) Gilbert ’02 came to Bethel College in 1997 to study Sign Language Interpreting – a new major at the time – she never imagined it would lead to a career in law. But early in her interpreting career, when she encountered a medical provider denying an interpreter for a deaf patient, she began to consider a career in advocacy for the deaf community.
“As an interpreter, you have an ethical obligation to interpret with neutrality and impartiality. You can’t advocate for a deaf client’s rights even when you know they are being treated unfairly. Observing discrimination repeatedly occur against deaf consumers in multiple settings, especially in medical and legal situations, prompted me to learn more about the Americans with Disabilities Act and to look into law school,” Gilbert says.She describes her career in interpreting as the launching pad through which she realized her calling to advance the rights to equal access of oppressed minorities, including the deaf and hard of hearing community.
“Bethel was the launching pad for sending me out into the world to be an effective, successful trailblazer,” Gilbert says.
While at Bethel, Gilbert grew in her faith and was shaped by her experiences, most notably by a semester abroad in Israel. There, while taking courses in Biblical Studies, she was able to engage with a group of 30 deaf people who came to study at Jerusalem University College. She subsequently traveled to India through World Partners, the Missionary Church missions organization, to work with the Eastern Indian deaf community.
She credits her success as a lawyer, in part, to her Bethel education, where courses in apologetics for her biblical studies minor prepared her for practicing law.
“[Former professor] Hutch (Thane) Ury and [Professor of Philosophy] Chad Meister had a huge impact on my life in terms of how to argue effectively and think critically.” She adds, “I learned critical thinking for arguing apologetics, which translates well into law. In their courses, students were required to pick a side, research the position and argue persuasively.”
Pride Point – Gilbert has served on the Bethel College Interpreter Training Program Advisory Council from 2014-2016 and will serve again for 2017-2019. Advisory Councils in every major at Bethel are made up of industry professionals who help inform curriculum and help professors better prepare students for the workforce in their chosen careers.
She adds, “I learned critical thinking for arguing apologetics, which translates well into law. In their courses, students were required to pick a side, research the position and argue persuasively.”
“As an interpreter, I noticed several gaps in access to interpreters in medical, legal and employment settings. I wanted to be a part of improving the systems and policies so that deaf communities could have assurance they would receive qualified interpreters and accessible phones in their most serious life situations.”
That’s just what her law firm, Gilbert Law PLLC, based near Minneapolis, Minn., aims to do. Since its inception in 2012, the firm has resolved multiple cases that have resulted in robust settlement agreements, requiring on-call sign language interpreters and training sessions for medical providers and law enforcement on deaf culture and video technology. Gilbert has negotiated these policy change requirements with multiple jails, county government systems, urgent care facilities, and hospitals, including Essentia Health, a large hospital system in North Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Because of Gilbert Law and the multiple brave deaf clients, on-call interpreters and/or video interpreting are required in many legal, medical and employment settings that were not previously part of the policies in those systems.
“Only four years out, our clients have been able to make huge changes in law enforcement and in hospitals,” says Gilbert. One of the greatest victories for the law firm was a favorable summary judgment decision for deaf patients in Saunders v. Mayo Clinic, the first in favor of deaf hospital patients ever in Minnesota federal courts.
Gilbert started interpreting while on an internship through Bethel hosted in Orlando, Florida, where she often interpreted for Walt Disney World. As a professional interpreter in Florida and later in Minnesota, she interpreted for cruise lines, medical providers, theatres and just before law school, as a staff interpreter for deaf government employees of the State of Minnesota and the Legislature.
From 2008-2012, while in law school at William Mitchell College of Law (now known as Mitchell Hamline School of Law), she worked under a state grant as an advocate for deaf and hard of hearing people experiencing discrimination in emergency medical and legal settings. She also contracted with the Minnesota and Wisconsin courts to interpret for deaf defendants and deaf jurors.
“I didn’t realize at the time that those four years as an officer of the courts would provide me with the knowledge and comfort of basic court room procedure and protocol,” she says.
Gilbert did not intend to open her own practice just one week after getting her license. However, with so many deaf people eager to have an ASL fluent lawyer and so few firms hiring in the grim 2012 market, that’s just what she did. Within just six months, Gilbert Law had nearly 30 clients. Her firm has now represented over 500 people.
The firm offers additional legal services in both English and ASL including estate planning, family law and business law. In 2015, Ms. Gilbert hired an associate attorney proficient in sign language. Also in 2015, Gilbert’s husband, Daniel Gilbert ’02, who also works in mergers and acquisitions at U.S. Bank, began handling estate planning cases for the firm. Gilbert was selected to the Super Lawyers Rising Stars list for 2014-2016 for her work in civil rights. She also teaches as an adjunct professor of law at Mitchell Hamline.
“We’re working to break down barriers and share with society that communication access for the deaf is a serious issue and there is a need to treat people equally,” Gilbert says. “We aim to accomplish this one case at a time.”