When the Law Empowers: Learning Disability Advocacy by Helping Yourself

In the past few months I’ve written about how disability makes a difficult profession even harder. But now, I want to tell you about how your legal knowledge empowers, especially when it comes to disability.

I primarily teach first year law students. But I also teach a small seminar open only to upper division students. The difference, after just one year of law school, is striking. By students' second year, each thought is better supported, and the once shaky voice is newly willing to stake out a controversial position and stick to it. After just one year of law school, students can cut through both sides of an argument. They are nimble and they are passionate.

I suspect the law school students reading this may recognize this shift in themselves. I experienced it too. Law school can be exhausting and demoralizing, but at a certain point, it becomes personally empowering. You are emboldened with knowledge.

I did not feel emboldened in college, and felt especially diminished the first time I sought disability accommodations. My senior year, I had knee surgery in between the end of fall quarter and the beginning of winter quarter. I was on crutches for two weeks, and when I returned to school, my leg was still bruised from the surgery. It was supposed to be a simple arthroscopy, but Rheumatoid Arthritis and my immunosuppressant medications had slowed down recovery. I was not well by the time school started.

I went to school in Chicago, and winters spent trekking up and down a campus that hugged Lake Michigan had been brutal. After the knee surgery, I realized that I would not be able to walk to one of my classes, which was held in a two-story house (no elevator) about a mile from my on-campus housing. But I'd applied to get into this advanced, and in my mind, fancy, writing seminar. I would not drop it.

Before the class met for the first time, I limped on over to the school’s student services office. I left with a handful of taxi vouchers. Problem solved, I guess. I'd take a taxi to class?

In the days of Uber, it’s hard to recall just how cumbersome calling a taxi could be. There was no guarantee that the taxi would come within the time the dispatcher told you it’d arrive. You had to be exactly where you’d said you’d be when the taxi arrived, and taxis did not wait.

I didn’t have a cell phone in college. At least 45 minutes before my class was to start, I’d call for a cab, and then wait on a street corner in the middle of winter, barely able to stand, until the cab arrived. The university hadn’t spoken to the cab company I’d been instructed to use. No one knew that a young disabled person on her way to class was waiting on a cold street corner. The cabs were either late or simply never arrived, which meant I had to go back inside and call again.

The class I was constantly late to was taught by a celebrated nonfiction writer who’d examined the doomed plight of children raised in public housing. He was one of my heroes. Back then, I had literary aspirations. But I was ofen tardy to my hero's class. I didn't make a great impression. The one time I tried to explain my physical difficulties to my hero, he cut me off.

It would have been reasonable to have the class moved to a location on campus that I could have accessed without taking a cab. But I was made to feel like the school was doing me a favor, as opposed to following the law, by offering me taxi vouchers. I didn’t know who to turn to when the system failed. Even my social justice warrior instructor didn’t care. 

So I gave up. Halfway through the quarter, I decided to walk to class. I needed about an hour to make it on time. I dragged my operated-on leg over icy sidewalks. My knee throbbed with pain.

A few years later, with just a few months of law school under my belt, I was much better equipped to advocate on my own behalf. I would no longer fold.

Overall, my alma mater went out of its way to help disabled students. Fifteen years ago, the campus was accessible in a way so many others still aren’t. A student in an automated wheelchair seemed to move around campus with ease. Every time I needed to use an elevator instead of take the stairs, I could do just that.

Still, it wasn't perfect.

During my first year, my knees were particularly inflamed and walking was difficult. Walking while toting my law school books was excruciating. Being able to use a disabled parking spot was a convenience that made a difference. Any time I could shorten the distance I needed to walk I also shortened the time I spent in pain.

About five years before I started law school in Los Angeles, members of the UCLA football team had been caught using disabled parking placards--fraudulently. This discovery had turned many Angelenos into parking lot vigilantes.

I guess I was an easy target.

I had a disabled parking placard. In fact, I had a permanent one—my rheumatologist did not hesitate to sign off on it, and told me to use it to conserve energy and avoid unnecessary pain. Still, I used it sparingly, embarrassed that I needed it, and afraid. Before I started law school, a woman had rushed me in a Target parking lot, yelling that I wasn’t disabled and shouldn’t be using the disabled parking spots. 

At law school, during my first fall semester, I parked in a disabled spot in the school parking lot. Before I got out of my car, I would check my review mirror to see if any of my classmates were in sight—I liked to emerge from my car unnoticed. I never had to fish around for the books I needed. Before leaving my home, I'd place the ones I needed in my backpack. I wanted my car exit to be smooth and quick.

One day, after going through this ridiculous routine, I confirmed that the coast was clear of anyone who knew me. I grabbed my books from my trunk and skulked off to class. Or at least I tried to. One of the school’s parking attendants stood between me and the parking lot exit. I could sense what was on his mind.

“That spot is for handicapped people,” he told me.

“I know,” I replied.

“That’s not for you,”  he said.

He crossed his arms and stared at me. Again, I scanned the parking lot, grateful no one was around to witness this. I fought back tears. I headed to class ashamed.

But this time, I wasn’t helpless. I got through the day. I slept on it. And then I contacted the law school’s student services office. I explained that I’d been accosted by a parking lot attendant who made assumptions about my disability that were incorrect and embarrassing.

The response was swift and fair: the attendant would never again challenge my use of the disabled spots. And, I received an apology, which was validating. I was right!

Thinking back, the email I crafted to raise my concerns was thoughtfully written. There was something about law school that made my voice steadier, my prose crisper, and my confidence in what was right and wrong unwavering. Yeah, I was self-righteous. But that's not always a bad thing. 

When I talk to students who are struggling with the accommodations process, I tell them to use the skills they are learning. I tell them to ask questions when something feels unjust. Learn the process and the rules and request adherence to them, I advise.

With every semester, your sense of how to do all of the above gets keener. It is not fun to have to advocate for rights the ADA has purportedly guaranteed for the past 28 years, but with each passing year, you are better equipped to do so.

The ADA is a knowable law. It is of relatively recent vintage, and it’s litigated often, meaning there’s case law out there for you to find. There are vague terms that can be used to a disabled person’s disadvantage, like “reasonable accommodation” and “interactive process,” but there are also clearly defined concepts, like confidentiality. Learn them. Use them. 

My fight to be treated with dignity and in accordance with the law continues. But I know so much more than I once did. It’s pretty powerful to be able to meet a troubling scenario with authority on your side, whether you do so for a client or for yourself.

I can't promise that the questions, the catty asides, and the neverending challenges will ever end. But with each battle, the law is by your side. The law is your ally. The law is often your answer.

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