Making it through law school with a disability

By J. Sam Thomas

Editor’s Note: This featured blog post coincides with the upcoming July issue of the Texas Bar Journal, which focuses on the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

 

This is a great time to be blind. I wouldn’t exactly recommend it as a hobby, but when I think about the challenges that I would have encountered before the development of modern accessibility technology, the struggles I face are put in perspective. My great-grandfather had the same progressive, untreatable visual disease that I have. He was able to work with the aid of a full-time assistant and read by way of mail-order books-on-record that took weeks to deliver. My assistant is Siri, and I can download almost any book in seconds.

Not all progress has been technological, however. In the 25 years since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, public life has become more accessible to people with disabilities. Curb cuts have opened many public spaces to wheelchair users, and reasonable accommodations have become more common at work and at school. Arguably just as important, greater inclusion has decreased the stigma and stereotypes associated with many conditions.

I am a beneficiary of that legacy. I am thankful for the people who fought so that I wouldn’t have to ask permission to go to school with my fully sighted peers and participate on an equal footing. That’s not to say the struggle is over. Discrimination persists, usually more in the stereotypes and assumptions of well-meaning people than in outright hostility. Whether they realize it or not, many people still conceive of disability as defect, a deviation from normal personhood. Instead of a necessary adjustment to allow equivalent access, universal design becomes a favor from mainstream society to the perennial “other.” This mindset leads to unnecessary barriers, both physical and institutional.

Attorneys with disabilities will be particularly important in advancing the gains of the past 25 years. No one is better qualified to play a direct role in shaping the laws that affect our lives. People with disabilities also have unique insight into the ways that seemingly innocuous design can interact with an impairment to create an unnecessary barrier. While some conditions, like blindness or paralysis, might be easy for unaffected people to understand as an academic matter, it is not always so obvious how they affect every aspect of a person’s day-to-day life. This is even truer of so-called invisible disabilities, such as psychiatric and metabolic disorders. When you don’t “seem disabled” to others, it’s often difficult for others to understand how your condition could substantially affect your life. In these cases, it’s all the more important for these people to be present in all aspects of public life. Without their example and their advocacy, unaffected people might never know how the designed environment can fail to provide access to all.

Attorneys with disabilities often begin as law students with disabilities. Law school is a daunting process. Like many institutions, law schools are often built on the perceived efficiency of predicting the needs of an average student. Luckily, the ADA and other civil rights statutes of the past century have created an environment in which schools are often ready and willing to work with students with disabilities. That said, because disability often means that you do things in unique ways, you have to be your own best advocate to ensure that you start off on an equal footing. Below are some tips that I’ve found useful as I navigate my early law school experience.

Be mindful of process. Many law schools have their own staff and rules for processing requests for reasonable accommodations. You’ll have to do some research to find the most efficient way to submit a request. It’s always a good idea to do so in writing. Keep track of the request and document your interactions. Also, be sure to ask specific questions about how approved accommodations will be provided. Will you inform professors or will the school? Where will you take tests? Who will coordinate and provide adaptive equipment and services? Will your accommodations ever need to be recertified?

Start early. If reasonable accommodations are something that you’ll need, start the request process as soon as you get accepted. If you are on a waiting list or otherwise cutting it close, you can still get everything together. The first year will be stressful enough without adding an accommodation process to the mix. If you feel comfortable doing so, you might even begin the process before you are accepted.

Get good documentation. While documentation of disability should not always be necessary, it will usually be requested. When getting documentation, don’t simply ask the doctor or other provider to write you a letter saying you are disabled. Communicate the specific purpose for the requested documentation. When possible, they should not only identify your primary impairment and related limitations but also specify ways that the disability affects your daily life and abilities. The description should be specific enough to give a good idea of what kind of accommodations you’ll need. Still, keep in mind that your needs might change and you might discover needs that neither you nor your documentation provider could have predicted. Therefore, the letter should be open-ended enough to allow you and the school to find additional accommodations as needed.

Be your own advocate. No one knows your needs better than you. Communication is key. Rules or policies that present a unique barrier to people with disabilities may require accommodation just as much as physical barriers. It might be difficult for others to understand the ways that a physical or mental condition affects your life as a student, but most will be willing to hear you out. Nevertheless, don’t necessarily take no for an answer. While being reasonable is important, you might have to make a case for an accommodation when a school official doesn’t understand its necessity.

Find campus support. Nobody makes it through law school alone. Friends, family, and classmates will be your first and most important support group. Beyond that, it’s important to take advantage of resources that can help ensure your law school experience is a productive one. Universities and colleges typically provide an array of resources for students who need support in achieving success, whether that assistance is academic or related to general health and well-being. You cannot always rely on individual departments or programs to refer you to all available services.

Other resources.

Now is a better time to be a student with a disability. There’s still work to be done. As recently as 2008, Congress passed the ADA Amendments Act to clarify the intended scope of ADA protections and to overturn recent Supreme Court decisions that had limited the act’s applicability. In addition to the legal challenges that remain, stereotypes and restrictive design still sometimes limit the opportunities available to people with disabilities. If you take a proactive role and advocate on your own behalf, however, a successful law school experience is within the reach of any Texas student—regardless of disability status.

 

J. Sam Thomas is a 2L at the University of Houston Law Center. His primary interests are civil rights law and advocacy for people with disabilities. He can be contacted at jsthomas6@uh.edu.

Sign Up Fund has an extra $6K for sign-language costs

For the past two years, the Disability Issues Committee of the State Bar of Texas has sponsored the Sign Up Fund, which helps attorneys, nonprofits, and bar associations cover sign-language interpreting costs incurred while representing individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing.

The Texas Bar Foundation provided monies for the fund, which started with $20,000. According to committee chair Rosa E. Torres, the fund ended this summer but still has $6,000 to disburse. If you could use this funding, please click here for details and contact information.