Wouldn’t life be a breeze if everyone knew what you needed at all times, knew how to best assist you, and were constantly open about the ways in which they can assist you? Unfortunately, we don’t live in Fairytale Land. Through my discussions with various people who work in higher education aiding students with disabilities, I have learned that being a self-advocate is the most important thing a law student with disabilities can do. Although many of these professors and counselors want what is best for us, they make it clear that it is easier for them to help students who advocate for themselves (and that’s just for the professors and counselors who are acting in good faith). Don’t get me wrong—there are plenty of professors and counselors who hide behind a wall of “this accommodation would change the scope of law school” and it’s generally because they just don’t realize how important accommodations may be to someone’s success. This isn’t the way it should be, but it is the way things are, and until we can change the system, we must be strong, relentless self-advocates.
What does it mean to be a self-advocate?
To be a self-advocate means to be educated on your own disability, know your rights, and know how to speak up for what you need. In law school, it also means to get the right people in your corner to help you when you are denied an accommodation you know should have been approved.
How do I become an effective self-advocate?
When you get diagnosed with a disability, the best, productive, and most helpful thing you can do for yourself is become an expert on that disability. Research using reputable sources, talk to people with the same disability, and get all the information you can from medical professionals. When you become an expert in your disability, you make yourself a stronger advocate. The more information you have, the more answers you will have to questions that someone may ask you. However, do not be dismayed if you do not have all of the answers, the fact is no one ever has all of the answers.
When applying for accommodations, being educated on your disability helps you to know what accommodations you might need and to fight for them so that they are less likely to be denied. It will also to help you know what accommodations other people with the same disability may have been granted. Additionally, being an expert in your disability aids you in the next step which is knowing what rights you have when it comes to having a disability.
The best place to start when understanding your rights as a person with a disability is turning to the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). The ADA gives you the legal background to understanding the rights that people are afforded in the United States, regardless of their disabilities. In my opinion, the most important part of the ADA for students with disabilities is that it provides a clear and comprehensive national mandate for the elimination of discrimination against individuals with disabilities.
Another great place to start to understand your rights is HERE! The National Disabled Law Students Association (NDLSA) “aims to eliminate the stigma of disability within the legal profession and foster an environment where law students and lawyers are easily able to obtain the accommodations necessary to achieve career success.” NDLSA works hard to stay up to date on the latest court decisions, accessibility issues for the LSAT, MPRE, Bar Exam, and beyond, and most importantly act as advocates for students and attorneys who need help having their voices heard when it comes to fighting for their rights as disabled individuals. This is a shameless plug to let you, the reader, know that we are here and ready to help you.
Law School Disability Advocacy Coalition is a Facebook Group under NDLSA and is a safe and open community of law students and lawyers with disabilities and their allies. Within this group people discuss their disabilities with others, learn about accommodations that others are seeking or have received, and even confer about which law schools are the most disability friendly. It is a wonderful place to find people who will have your back, advocate for you, and for you to help advocate for others as well.
You are not only an expert in your disability and the ADA once you complete steps 1 and 2, but you are also an expert in yourself. No one knows you, better than you. You know what you need, and now you need to speak up for those needs. Don’t take no for an answer. If you need a certain accommodation in law school, an internship, the Bar, a job post-graduation, or anywhere in between, you need to fight for that accommodation. If your research has informed you that you are entitled to an accommodation and that people with the same disability as you have also had that accommodation, don’t take “no” for an answer. There’s an appeals process for a reason. Check back later this month for a blog update entirely dedicated to the appeals process in law school and for the various standardized tests related to lawyering.