Knowing you belong: Thriving in law school with a disability

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[ Mara Masters, 1L at Emory Law ]

Disability is complicated. Even the term is rife with implication, and in an environment that is driven by competition like law school is, the already complicated aspects of living with a disability have the potential to morph into shame and create or exacerbate toxic fear. For the law students I’ve informally surveyed about this, invisible struggles like chronic illness, mental health battles, learning disabilities, sleep disorders, and others that are not immediately visible can not only cause unique interpersonal situations, like whether or not to disclose to potential employers, what disclosure means for the bar or the social implications of taking time and a half on exams, but may also lead to habits of comparison and feelings of shame.

I don’t have the answer to any of the interpersonal and professional questions, though I wish I did. Those answers will vary based on personal circumstances. But I have picked up a few tips for overcoming habits of comparisons and shame and thriving in law school with a disability.

Learn your pace.

I have the tendency to go as hard as I can until I collapse. This strategy used to work for me, but definitely doesn’t anymore. Now if I go too hard for even a single day, it takes me about a month to recover. So this semester has been trial and a lot of error in learning my pace (which is slow. Very slow). Learning to pace yourself is hard work, so if you are in this phase, don’t sell yourself short.

Practice your advocacy skills

Whether you have an accommodation through your school or not, law school is a very good time to practice advocating for yourself. I’m not going to lie. This is easier said than done. Between cold calls and job applications, oral arguments and exams, law school requires an insane amount of vulnerability on the reg. And self-advocacy requires a certain level of vulnerability, whether you choose to disclose your disability or not.

This is the first year that my law school has had students arrange their own meetings with professors to discuss accommodations instead of having a staff mediator do it. I’m grateful for the timing, because it means many of my professors are learning to have conversations around disability and accommodations at the same time that I am. I was very awkward the first time I sat in a professor’s office to discuss what I needed in order to succeed in his class. I felt like I was admitting weakness and that my needs were indicators that maybe I just didn’t belong in law school. But every professor I have talked to has been kind, affirming, and understanding, and most of them have gone above and beyond to provide the support I requested.

Build your support group.

My support group consists of people both in and out of law school. This is a very small group of people who I go to when I need support, advice, or a kick in the pants. All I have to do is text the word “blergh” and any one of them will take that as their cue to read one of the lines I have given them for such situations. If you don’t have a solid support group, don’t fret. It takes time. Mine has been in the making for years. Be patient in the meantime, and maybe say a few of these affirmations for law students out loud to yourself.

Stop feeling guilty.

Law students tend to be high achievers who feel guilt and shame when they fall short of the high standards they and others set for them. This is a gross generalization, but one that I think is broadly accurate. In my quest to learn my pace this semester, I have had many, many, many moments of feeling guilty for not finishing everything on my to-do list or for getting 10 (or 12) hours of sleep instead of working on my brief. I started to see a pattern that when I felt bad about some perceived failure, I had a much harder time getting work done or feeling proud of my other various accomplishments. This is where my incredible support group comes in. I tell them all of these things and then they repeat back to me that my disability makes me more compassionate, or that I am actively learning a difficult new skill, or they list a series of recent accomplishments or whatever thing I told them to tell me when I reached out. It’s up to me to do the hard work of believing them and seeing my own struggle as a positive in my life but hearing basic truths from someone else certainly helps.

The point is that having a disability does not mean you don’t belong in law school. You bring something unique to the table, and the legal profession needs your experience and insight.

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