It’s October, and you know what that means—it’s National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM)! Yes, the month when we celebrate the fact that not only are we employable, but we bring significant contributions to the workplace. Not only is it NDEAM, but it’s NDEAM’s 75th anniversary. That’s right, 75 years. It’s been a big year for us. Thirty years of the ADA, and 75 years of NDEAM. This year’s NDEAM theme is “Increasing Access and Opportunity.”
Every week, we will publish a blog from our NDLSA NDEAM Dream Team™ to share inclusion tips for law students, law schools, employers, and other members of the legal profession. We must all act to ensure that disabled law students and attorneys achieve similar levels of employment and have access to the same opportunities as their non-disabled peers.
This week’s topic? How career services offices can ensure that they are best serving their disabled students. Like our non-disabled peers, we are stressed about our employment prospects both during and after law school. However, we face the additional stresses of worrying about whether we will face discrimination, dealing with accommodations, and other barriers to employment. Your guidance and baseline understanding of these issues makes all the difference for students trying to navigate these waters. Many of us had to figure so much out on our own. Having career services on our side could make such a difference.
Here are some crucial tips for administrators and career services counselors:
1) Not every disabled person wants to go into disability law.
Disabled people have varying interests. Some even want to defend big oil. And while that is not my thing, that is certainly their right. Please do not assume that every disabled law student wants to pursue disability rights or justice, even if they are passionate about asserting their own needs. It is simply something they must do. It is survival.
2) Diversity fellowships and associateships include disability!
When you see a diversity fellowship or associateship of some sort come your way, remember—disability is diversity! Be sure to send those to your disabled students as well. Many are looking for internships or post-graduate positions, and these opportunities are a way for disabled individuals to gain entry into the profession.
3) Be prepared to discuss job accommodations and how to navigate them.
Some law students have never had a full-time job, and they might not have any idea where to start when it comes to requesting accommodations. Others have worked before law school, but they could use some guidance as to the general environment, what accommodations they might need, how they might request accommodations within the legal profession specifically, and to what protections they are entitled. These are all topics that career counselors should be prepared to discuss in a non-judgmental, non-patronizing, and informative manner. You should be well-versed in the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act, and the specific protections the law may or may not provide to students in specific employment scenarios. You should learn about what accommodations people may need and how to request those accommodations.
If you are interested in learning more about accommodations, the ADA, and how it protects employees, some helpful resources include https://askjan.org, which provides a number of resources and examples of accommodations that one might request; https://www.eeoc.gov/laws/guidance/reasonable-accommodations-attorneys-disabilities; and so many others.
4) Be prepared to discuss accessible clothing.
As a lawyer, I am expected to wear clothing with infinite buttons and zippers. Hot tip: They’re inaccessible, and adaptive clothing is even more expensive than the typical attire we are expected to purchase. As a woman, I am expected to wear heels and other types of dress shoes that I cannot wear. My neuropathy and physical disabilities make it too difficult and painful. I can’t walk or function in those shoes. Professional clothing is expensive. Disabled people are underpaid, have disproportionate amounts of medical and other bills due to their needs, and so much more, making typical suits and attire generally inaccessible. The reasons why the norms for legal attire and appearance are inaccessible are endless. Be prepared to talk about accessible clothing options with your disabled students without imposing the legal profession’s unrealistic expectations on your students. What are the alternatives? Where can they find them? How can those needs be met? What solutions can we come up with?
5) Do not assert that there is only one particular path, or minimal paths, to obtain a goal.
In many conversations I have had with career counselors, there is an assumption that there is one specific, ascertainable way to achieve a goal. In my experience, that’s complete and utter bologna. And I’m sure you can agree. Not only is it inaccurate, but it potentially excludes qualified folks pursuing realistic goals simply because they do not believe they can take the specific directions provided. Perhaps the “traditional” path is inaccessible for that individual. Be willing to provide ample paths to career success and to explain that they are simply examples. Be ready to work with your students to find creative solutions based upon their goals.
6) The ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act apply to career services offices if they apply to your institution.
Remember: as a general rule, insofar as the ADA or the Rehabilitation Act applies to your institution, it also applies to all services and programming provided by the career services office. You must ensure that you are accommodating students’ needs so they can take advantage of your services, attend events, and fully participate and avail themselves of all that your office has to offer.
7) Tailor your advice and services to students’ needs.
Some students might need multiple reminders to help with memory retention or other disabilities. However, as someone with anxiety, being constantly reminded about deadlines, limitations, and pressures can be extremely overwhelming. Once I have that information, too much additional stress can be more harmful than helpful. Some students might require more specific feedback or instruction. Asking what your students need and how you can be helpful for that individual is a great place to start.
One other thing to bear in mind is that often feedback on résumés is based on aesthetics. For folks who are blind or low vision, it might require some more time and explanation to help your students. Your students might even ask you how to complete a formatting task, and that’s alright. Just do not assume that you need to do it for your student. Again, always ask what your student needs and how you can help. The student will let you know!
8) Make sure your website and job search platforms are accessible.
Please make sure your career services websites and job search platforms are not only compliant and accessible but also that they also have clear instructions and resources for disabled students. Unclear instructions create accessibility barriers.
9) Vet your job postings.
Providing job postings for employers who lack clear non-discrimination policies and do not provide assurance of non-discrimination on any basis, including disability, is not recommended. You hold some leverage through recruitment practices to change workplace policies. By posting non-vetted positions, you play a role in perpetuating problematic and toxic workplaces for disabled lawyers. If you absolutely must post any position that is not vetted, at the very minimum, it should be noted in a clear and accessible way that no vetting took place. However, I do not recommend providing those postings. Use your positions of power to make the legal field a better place for disabled attorneys.
10) Provide additional mock interviews and guidance for neurodivergent folks when possible and requested.
Folks with anxiety and who are otherwise neurodivergent might need some extra assistance with mock interviews, whether that is to ease nerves, assist with better understanding different questions or cues, and so much more. It does not mean that we are not fully capable of nailing that interview and doing that job. It just means that we need a little more preparation. Taking some extra time can go a long way. I know that, for my anxiety, having those extra mock interviews and additional preparation in a non-judgmental setting was extremely helpful.
11) Traditional networking events inherently include barriers to success for some disabled students. It is not the magical answer to everything.
Networking in the most traditional sense can be difficult for many disabled students for a variety of reasons. For me, I am simply too exhausted and in too much pain to physically go to events. It is also hard to stand and physically engage for extended periods of time. For others, anxiety and sensory overload, for example, prevent constant networking from being a realistic option. For those who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing, the fact that so many hearing folks do not know sign language, a lack of interpreters or captioning, and the background noise level at networking receptions making it more difficult to hear are all barriers. These are only a few examples of the barriers disabled students face at traditional networking events. Career counselors should be aware of these obstacles to networking and should be ready to work with students to come up with alternatives.
12) Administrators, hire disabled career services counselors!
I cannot stress this point enough. All of this advice will be so much easier to integrate and accomplish when you have disabled counselors. No matter how educated one becomes about disability justice, if you do not have lived experience, you will always miss something. Nothing can replace that. Hiring disabled career counselors who can provide advice about working in the field (and not just to disabled students—disabled people can provide valuable advice to everyone and are assets to any team in their own right) is vital to the current and future careers of your disabled students.
This list is, of course, not an exhaustive list of everything that you can do to ensure that 1) your office is inclusive and accessible to disabled students and 2) disabled students have the best chance possible of obtaining employment both during and after law school. However, we hope that it provides a few helpful first steps and starts a larger conversation about the role career services offices have in both the exclusion and potential inclusion of disabled students in the legal profession.