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I Got By With A Little Help From My Friends

I have been disabled my whole life, but I did not begin to identify as a disabled person until my ADD/ADHD diagnosis at age 24. I started law school at age 26, having never received academic accommodations. Reflecting on my 1L law school experience as a disabled student, I am blessed to have far more gratitude than complaints. I was fortunate to be surrounded by other students who relentlessly supported me in navigating my way through law school with a disability.

However, when I first began looking at some of the online forums disabled law students turn to for advice and support, I saw posts from peers around the country that reflected on toxic cultures and overtly ableist incidents in their law schools. I was so angry that these incidents were happening to people like me, but I was also forced to take a hard look at why my experience felt so different. I am disabled, but I felt supported and loved by my peers all the time.

Here are some of the wonderful acts of love that my law school friends showed me that other non-disabled law students could show their peers this school year:

Keep disability disclosures private.

When I disclosed my disabilities to my peers, they kept that information to themselves. They did not share my story or my diagnoses with people outside of the class discussion or with other friends. They let me define myself on my own terms, and they supported me when I shared new information with others.

Be willing to be with someone while they process their feelings.

I mean this both in a physical sense and an emotional sense. I have law school friends who were so willing to do this, and I cannot express how much it meant to me. When my anonymity wasn’t completely protected by the administration, when I had to go through bureaucracy that other students don’t experience or felt like someone had acted biased or discriminatory toward me, my friends were willing to accept that reality and be uncomfortable with it with me. They did not deny me the opportunity to share my discomfort with someone else. They were willing to be uncomfortable with the way things were, too.



Let people talk about their experiences of disability without shutting down the conversation.

Remember that there is a balance to strike in disability allyship. Sometimes, I want to hear that my experience is valid and shared by others, with or without disabilities. However, at times, non-disabled folks can respond in ways that can be counterproductive or harmful in some of my most emotionally vulnerable moments. In that vein, I need non-disabled people to know that when they say, “I get it,” they actually do not get it. The most hurtful thing a person can do, in my experience, is to be completely and utterly silent or feign disinterest. It leaves me silently begging, “Please take five minutes to sit in my discomfort with me! Please do not change the subject! Please be there with me!” Law school was one of the first places where I felt like people were committed to keeping the conversation alive. Not everyone did it perfectly, but absolutely everyone tried, and it felt like magic.



Talk openly about issues surrounded by harmful stigmas. 

Once one person talks about having a therapist, everyone in the room is more likely to feel like they can talk about their mental health care. The person who brings up their therapist first will never stop being important to me. Utilizing mental health services, attaining affordable health insurance, and getting access to medications can also be hard topics for folks to bring up. But law students, when they share their struggles around these topics, can help each other immensely by sharing knowledge and resources. You can reduce so much pain by being the first person to say something personal. Every person who said something personal in rooms where it was hard to do so made a positive impact on my 1L year.



Check in when it is uncomfortable to check in.

My law school friends are AMAZING at this. When I was absent from a class because I was at health services, multiple classmates of mine sent me notes without question, asked me if I was okay and if I needed anything, and let me know that my absence was felt but understood. When I cried at law school (people cry everywhere, including at law school), classmates followed up with me via text message and found other private ways to check in with me. And most importantly, my law school friends did not let my vulnerable moments define me or overshadow my moments of leadership, intelligence, and kindness. They defined me by more significant things than my bad days, and when they saw instances of other people defining me by my bad days, they called them out.



If something is not working, have a conversation.

It is okay to provide feedback to your friends and peers with disabilities the same way that you provide feedback to everyone else on the planet. The kind way to do so is to ask clarifying questions and explain your needs. When I walk into the room and try to tell a story while my roommate (also a 2L) is in the middle of writing a sentence, she’ll hold up her hand to pause and ask if we can talk about it in a few minutes. This practice helps me! It reminds me that my priorities are not always everyone’s priorities.



Take your disabled friend’s days off seriously.

I do not take many days off, so when I tell everyone I’m out for the day, I’m not kidding around. If I miss things I care about, it’s because I’m so tired that showing up will create mental and physical harm for me. My first semester, I had a major panic attack the day before a big presentation, and the health center encouraged me to take the day off the day of the presentation. My law office (our small 1L “home” groups at Northeastern) sent me affirming text messages, picked up my pieces of the project, let me sleep until 4 PM that day, and gave me credit for my ideas at the presentation (which I later learned about from our professor). I felt so respected, valued, and loved.

 

Cautious Considerations

I’ve heard from others about a few key allyship issues that disability allies should be cautious of in law school. I want to note two of them specifically because fear around these issues has created anxiety for me.



Do not pigeonhole your disabled friends.

Being a disabled person does not mean I want to be a disability lawyer! I am in law school to do public health and antipoverty justice work. At first, I was reluctant to speak openly about my disability or my need for peer conversation around it because I am not at law school to do disability work, I just happen to be disabled. Being disabled is not an extracurricular activity, and I do not owe my legal career to my identity community.



Please do not call me brave.

I am not brave for sharing that I’m disabled. I share my disability story because I must. I share my disability because I need accommodations, and a lot of times, the easiest way for me to get those is to have an honest conversation or write a compelling email. If you are not disabled, I am not sharing my disability for you to be inspired by my resilience. I am sharing my disability and my experience for the person who has been waiting to hear their own identity affirmed. I am sharing to find them so that I feel less alone. The whole class might hear what I am sharing, but most of the time, my sharing is not a message to the class.

 

A Word on Policy

There is a myth that you should be able to exist on your own island in law school, but that was never a pressure I felt during my first year. People did not just want to work with me. They wanted to be a part of who I was in the same way I wanted to be a part of who they were. Law school was–is–possible for my brain and my heart because I had a team.



I want to acknowledge that while great peer allies are all I have known in law school, I also attend a law school that actively promotes allyship. Students at my school are encouraged to share notes, engage in dialogues, open their circles, and be kind. A nontraditional grading system discourages unhealthy competition and fosters a culture of collaboration. The lack of a grading curve means that no one else’s success has negative consequences for yours. We do not always mindfully design policies and systems that encourage non-disabled students to be better allies, which in turn will also make them better lawyers. If you are a nondisabled law student reading this post, first of all, thank you. 



Second of all, I have one final ask for you:



Work with me to achieve policy change.

There is a legal universe on the horizon where disabled law students are equals. We will get there faster if you do what you can to learn from, amplify, and uplift the policies that your disabled peers tell you are necessary.

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Aly McKnight

Aly McKnight

Aly is the Director of Social Media (executive team) with NDLSA. She maintains NDLSA’s social media presence and keeps track of current events. Aly is a 2L at Northeastern University School of Law (NUSL). Prior to law school, Aly worked in several different roles as a community engagement professional.

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