Written by Joanna Hughes

Approximately 15 percent of the world’s population -- more than one billion people -- have some form of disability, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Unfortunately, many people with disabilities have unmet needs -- making disability rights a highly relevant issue for today’s law students as future legal professionals. Not only that, but many law students have disabilities themselves and therefore face challenges of their own when navigating life in the law. Here’s a closer look at the issue of law students and disability rights.

The 411 on Law Students and Disabilities

In a Before the Bar blog addressing the hurdles faced by many disabled law students during their time in school, one student with a physical disability said, “It definitely seems like there are more and more students with disabilities who are going to law school, which is incredibly encouraging, but I’m not sure if they’re being accommodated any better than they used to be. Disability rights, in general, are becoming a bigger issue. It’s filtering into the law school environment, as well. Broadly speaking, law students are pretty good advocates for others—and themselves.”

If you are disabled, understanding your rights can help you successfully advocate for yourself while in law school. Specifically, you should be aware of two laws: Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which protects students from discrimination for “specific learning disabilities” at schools which receive federal financial assistance; and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which insists that all people with disabilities be granted reasonable accommodations.

In addition to applying to physical disabilities, these laws may also apply to those with certain learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, executive functioning disability, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Clarifies US News & World Report, “The purpose of such accommodations is not to give students with learning disabilities an advantage over their peers but rather to put them on a level playing field.”

While law schools are not allowed to discriminate against students with disabilities, the reality is that some are more accommodating than others. By researching in advance which accommodations are available along with how (and when -- the sooner, the better) to request these accommodations, you can determine law schools which will best meet your needs while simultaneously laying the groundwork for success once you are there. Says US News & World Report, “Deciding where to commit may come down to which program has resources better suited to support your particular needs.”

Lastly, keep in mind that the decision to disclose a disability at the time of your application is up to you. (This information may be germane to your application if it helped lead you to choose to attend law school and/or was formative in another key way.) Whatever you choose, remember that your disability cannot be held against you.

If you aren’t sure of our rights, or if you are in need of additional assistance, the American Bar Association Commission on Disability Rights and the National Association of Law Students With Disabilities are useful resources.

Why Disability Rights Matter for All Law Students

While disability rights may be immediately pertinent to law students with disabilities, disability law is an important area of study -- regardless of whether or not you are disabled.

For starters, due to the aging population and increase in chronic health conditions, disability rates are anticipated to continue to rise in the years ahead. Additionally, despite laws enacted to protect them, people with disabilities are frequently faced with challenges to their rights.

In an article published in the Columbia Human Rights Law Review, “What’s Disability Studies Got to Do With It (Or an Introduction to Disability Legal Studies),” author Arlene Kanter asserts that a gap exists in this field. She writes, “While Disability Studies applies social, cultural, historical, philosophical, and humanities to the place of disability in society, Disability Legal Studies extends these perspectives to the particular role of disability within the legal system and legal studies. Although disability is central to many issues in law, it is generally absent from legal scholarship and classroom discussions.”

The New York Times, meanwhile, goes so far as to declare disability studies “a new normal.” Why? Because “disability is a porous state; anyone can enter or leave at any time. Live long enough and you will almost certainly enter it.”

In other words, at some point in their lives, nearly anyone could become disabled and therefore require the services of a lawyer trained in disability law. As a result, job prospects are many, with positions available everywhere from school districts, community service agencies and law firms to national policy or advocacy organizations, international human rights organizations, and federal, state and local government agencies.

While it’s true that laws exist to protect people with disabilities, it’s equally true that despite these laws, people with disabilities still represent a massive and disenfranchised minority group. Law students who train in this field -- as well as those with first-hand experience managing the challenges of living with disabilities themselves -- are uniquely positioned to play powerful, potentially life-changing roles in the lives of people very much in need of their expertise.

Interested in learning more? Read more about LLMs in Public Interest Law








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Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.
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