Growing up, my favorite week of the year was Muscular Dystrophy Association Camp. There children and young adults with muscular dystrophy were brought together to enjoy adaptive activities and make new friends. Although I enjoyed the swimming, horseback riding, and dances, the main reason this week was so meaningful to me was the opportunity to be around people like me. For the first time in my life, I was not the only person in the room with muscular dystrophy; in fact, I was one among many. I experienced a sense of belonging I had never known. We looked like each other, innately understood the challenges we faced, and talked about our unique talents and abilities.
Years later, I graduated from law school in 2015, and quickly joined a variety of local bar associations. Minnesota has a plethora of active and engaged bar associations, including numerous affinity bar associations for American Indian, Asian Pacific, Black, Hispanic, LGBTQ+, Women, and Somali attorneys. However, there was no bar association to bring together and represent the interests of Minnesota legal professionals with disabilities. Over the years, as I settled into my practice, I floated the idea of a state disability affinity bar association with a variety of individuals, hoping that someone else would create an organization that I could join to re-create that sense of belonging I felt at the camp.
After spending a long time researching and connecting with others, in early 2022 I put out the call for members to join in founding a disability affinity bar association. I was blown away by the response. Within no time we had members in the double digits. We had many insightful conversations about what we hoped a disability affinity bar would provide us and the legal community. Nine months later, the Minnesota Disability Bar Association now serves disabled legal professionals, including attorneys, judges, staff, students with disabilities, and nondisabled allies.
In October we celebrate National Disability Employment Awareness Month. This year’s theme is Disability: Part of the Equity Equation. I believe that the Minnesota Disability Bar Association serves as an illustration of how disability is indeed part of the equity equation in the legal profession. Achieving diversity, equity, and inclusion for disabled legal professionals is the Association’s primary mission. Our goals include increasing disability diversity in the legal profession and the judicial system; providing meaningful opportunities for disabled legal professionals to succeed; eliminating systemic barriers we encounter in the profession; and creating a supportive and inclusive culture where we can thrive. To date, we are working to dismantle two types of barriers, structural and societal. Structural barriers include physically inaccessible locations that prevent a person with a disability from enjoying full access to that location. Societal barriers include negative stereotypes of people with disabilities, such that we are to be pitied or are incapable of work. We are dismantling these barriers by raising awareness, providing companies with resources to recruit, hire, retain, and promote people with disabilities in their workforces, and showcasing successful disabled professionals.
My hope for the future is that disability will become mainstream in the diversity, equity, and inclusion conversation in the legal profession, and that legal professionals with disabilities will become comfortable being “out” with their disability in the workplace. Our Association is still young, but I am confident that we will continue to grow. We recognize the amount of work needed to reach our goals, but people with disabilities are problems-solvers by necessity, and we will meet the challenge.
Before I put out the call to found a disability affinity bar association, I knew only a couple disabled attorneys in Minnesota. Now, I have connected with more than a dozen, as well as many disability allies. Interestingly, some members are attorneys that I already knew, and learning about their disability status helped us connect in a new way. I finally feel the sense of belonging I first felt a long time ago at camp.