By Katherine Macfarlane • January 28, 2018•Writers in Residence, Law School, Other Law School Issues
I dreaded law school exams, but not because of the exams themselves. I received testing accommodations in law school, which meant that I took my exams in a room far away from the place all of my classmates took theirs.
They noticed my absence.
“I didn’t see you in the Contracts exam,” my classmates would tell me.
Over the course of three years, I told only one friend about the accommodations room. My testing accommodations were a closely guarded secret. I was ashamed that my testing experience was different, and afraid that my good grades would be attributed to the accommodations instead of my hard work.
Law school students: I’m going to tell you about my experience so that you don’t feel the same shame I felt. I don’t want you to hesitate to ask for the accommodations the law entitles you to receive.
It took me time and a great deal of soul-searching to accept that I needed accommodations in law school. It also took my body breaking down.
Halfway through my first semester of law school, in the middle of a Civil Procedure lecture, my right hand, my writing hand, cramped. I couldn’t move it across the page. I put my pen down, nervous about missing some key detail of personal jurisdiction.* My hand looked like a claw, and was locked in place. I tried to shake off whatever was happening. I used my left hand to try to massage my right hand back to life. Nothing worked. I felt short of breath, and began to panic. Would I have to drop out of law school?
Well, no, but at age 23, I realized that my days of writing with a pen or pencil were over. My right hand was too weak.
Losing the ability to handwrite came as a surprise. But the underlying cause was no mystery. I was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis (“RA”) shortly after I turned one. I also have a lifelong history of inflammatory eye disease. Daily pain and joint deterioration are the most common consequences of RA. An RA patient's hands are often destroyed by RA.
In addition, the medicine I was taking to control my illnesses had serious side effects. Because of my long-term prednisone use, at age 23, I had the bone density of an eighty-year-old. And cataracts. I had my first cataract surgery one month before law school began. I kept this to myself. It’s not the best opening line.
At age 23, when I entered law school, I’d been sick for 22 years. I was accustomed to managing doctors’ appointments and prescription refills. I was a master of the meticulous budgeting it takes to stay current on never-ending medical bills. Long before I entered law school, I’d become adept at managing a difficult life. Always without accommodations.
So what was different? I was not prepared for the all-consuming nature of law school. Never before had I studied so hard and read so much. My usual shortcuts didn’t work.
During the first year of law school, there were very few days off. While my classmates rested, I went to doctor appointments. As the semester dragged on, I started to postpone checkups and waited an extra day, or sometimes an extra week, to pick up a prescription refill. Every free moment had to be devoted to studying.
Until my hand gave out, I thought this routine would be my new normal.
It didn’t have to be that hard. But as a law student, I had no concept of what accommodations were, or why I might need them.
It’s funny to write this now. I’m a law professor who teaches students about the ADA.
Given my documented history of illness and its obvious ability to impact my law school career, I should have asked for accommodations the moment I was accepted to law school. But unless I'd decided to write a personal statement describing my entire medical history, how was the school to know I needed accommodations guidance? And I did not think of myself as disabled, or disabled enough. I certainly didn’t want to be singled out for special treatment. After all, I had always been sick, but I had always persevered.
Pride can be poisonous.
The hand cramp wasn’t the end of the world. None of my professors had a laptop ban, so I simply switched to taking notes on a laptop. No one asked me why I'd switched. But I worried about exams. All I knew was that they were multi-hour marathons. I’d need to get up and stretch multiple times during each exam so that my knees wouldn’t swell. I worried that if my hand cramped, even while typing, I wouldn’t recover in time to finish the exam in front of me.
Reluctantly, I completed my law school’s accommodations forms. My doctor and I laughed at the medical certification portion, wondering if the school really wanted to see all relevant medical records, which dated back to 1981.
I also struggled to figure out what kind of accommodations to request. It’s so hard to know what you’ll need before you go through the law school testing experience. Many schools ask doctors to recommend specific accommodations. I always found this odd, as doctors don't go to law school.
My biggest hangup was my fear that my accommodations would create a testing environment in which I had unfair advantages. Careful no to ask for too much, I settled on asking for a five-minute stretching break every 30 minutes. The break would be away from my computer, and off the clock. I had no additional time to write my exams, which was very important to me. I had to be able to tell myself that the accommodations didn't make things easier.
Taking my stretching break away from my computer might have unintentionally made my testing process harder. No one suggested that I could ask for more time, or that it would be better if I remained in front of my laptop while I stretched.
Looking back, I wish I had been more generous with myself.
There were no advantages built into my law school experience. My disability made law school so different for me. No one else I knew had to beg for additional financial aid the moment her insurance co-pay increased from $4 to $25 per prescription. I entered a writing competition I didn’t have time for hoping that the prize money would help defray my medication costs (it did--thank you, Jesuit Community Foundation). Aside from the pain and financial anxiety, I felt isolated and lonely, trapped by circumstances I couldn’t begin to explain.
There was no reason to add testing accommodations shame to my daily stress.
If you are a disabled student wavering over whether you deserve accommodations, please, just go for it. Be honest about what you need. Talk to your doctor about the ways law school might be hard on your body, and see what your doctor thinks sitting in place for three, four or five hours will do to you. Ask a 2L or 3L you trust about your professors’ exams. Fill out the forms your school provides well before classes start. Understand that you may need to update them and change what you originally asked for. That’s ok. If your needs change, accommodations should too. If you don’t need the accommodations, great! Don’t use them. But be prepared in case you do. And be kind to yourself. Life’s hard enough for you already.
I should have asked for accommodations the moment I was accepted to law school. I didn't know I needed them, and when I realized I did, I wasn't sure I was disabled enough to deserve them. And I was embarrased.
My hesitation was a mistake. I had nothing to be ashamed of. And I was disabled, which was enough to make my accommodations legitimate. I needed accommodations, and I deserved accommodations. If your disability is impacting your life as a law school student, you might too.
*One of the subjects I now teach is Civil Procedure, so I guess I'm solid on personal jurisdiciton.