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February 21, 2020

Lawyer Spotlight: Day Al-Mohamed

Day Al-Mohamed and her dog, Veni

Day Al-Mohamed and her dog, Veni

Spotlight: Day Al-Mohamed

Day is an attorney working at the US Department of Labor.

What is your disability? How does it affect you as a lawyer?

I am visually impaired and have ADHD. Living with a disability often requires creative problem-solving and examining problems from multiple perspectives. This skill has been a significant benefit in my career.

What accommodations do you use in the workplace? Have you encountered any obstacles or challenges from your employers, colleagues, or schools in obtaining accommodations?

I use a screen reader and request that all reports, documents, memos and materials be transmitted electronically. Not only does this allow for greater accessibility for me, but moving the office over to an all-digital process has also improved our response times as a whole and decreased our error rate.

Do you disclose your disability to employers or colleagues?  Why or why not?

My disability is visible so disclosure is generally not a choice. However, I do choose to be open and clear about my accommodations and the “why” behind them. I think it helps when colleagues understand how accommodations are a “leveling of the playing field,” and how a person with a disability can do the same work they can, just … differently.

Why did you decide to become a lawyer? Did your disability have an impact on your decision?

My undergraduate degree is in Social Work. One of the things that bothered me so much was how poorly regulatory policy was written as it applied to child and family services, as it applied to welfare and other services for those who needed them. I struggled with working within the system but didn’t have the tools to address the structural inequities of the institutions themselves. The law seemed to be the best possible tool to affect positive change.

What type of legal work do you do, and how did you decide on a field?

I have been a lobbyist, a policy advisor and strategist for the government, and a program analyst. My interest has always been on the legislative aspects of the legal field. I always thought that once you were in a courtroom, the only thing that can happen is that a decision is made based on the evidence at hand. It makes the best of a bad situation. However, working with the legislative and executive arms of government, there is the opportunity to actually craft legislative and regulatory language to minimize confusion and support clear equitable justice from the very beginning.

What advice would you give to fellow lawyers or law students with disabilities?

For law students with disabilities and really any other lawyers, the most important advice I would give is to ask you to keep top-of-mind why you chose to enter this field. The world is a rough place; there is a lot of competition; and having an expensive law degree both opens and closes a variety of opportunities. To be successful, and happy, remember why you chose the legal field in the first place. More than any other career, in law your personal integrity and values guide your choices. If you do this, then you’ll never regret any decision you make.

How do you think the legal profession is doing in creating a diverse and inclusive environment for persons with disabilities? What could be improved?

I have to admit, I am not as knowledgeable as I could be about how the legal profession as a whole is doing in creating a diverse and inclusive environment for persons with disabilities. What I am knowledgeable about is that while I do know several lawyers with disabilities, many of them have chosen not to practice inside a courtroom, are not associates or partners in law firms and introduce themselves by the title of their job rather than as a lawyer. That, I think is something to be concerned about.  

I don’t have any easy answers. Creating a diverse and inclusive environment means looking at the institutional structures and the bias that is built into their very foundations from before law school, through early jobs, to partnerships in law firms, and even judgeships. In a profession that prides itself on intellectual rigor, there is too much “sameness” and, honestly, too much clinging to “tradition” that leaves out too many amazing, intelligent people because of their class, the color of their skin, their gender, or yes, because they have a disability.

Since your work at the Department of Labor has included helping develop and implement strategies to increase employment opportunities for people disabilities, how do you think legal employers can best position themselves to hire more lawyers with disabilities?

Legal employers can best position themselves to hire more lawyers with disabilities by actually hiring them. That’s it; that’s all there is to it. Provide accommodations and recognize that the disability is not an inherent negative. Different, not necessarily less. Recognize that there is bias in your firm, in your colleagues and in you. There is significant privilege in this profession. Many lawyers who are “other”, whether that is gender, sexual orientation, race, or disability, have all spoken about the biases they have faced, how their capacity was questioned, and their concerns dismissed.  So in short, I’d encourage employers to be ruthlessly critical in examining their decision-making, and to reevaluate their work environment to see how they may be making it less welcoming to people with disabilities. Sadly, mere accessibility, while a low bar, is often not met.

As someone who has worked on diversity from multiple angles, including gender, race, and immigration status, have you found any intersections between that work and your disability advocacy?

When it comes to intersections between disability and other identities such as gender, race, and immigration status, it is clear that there are additional barriers in being multiply-marginalized. This is not new; the concept was first named by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, in reference to African-American women. One of her best examples that really highlights WHY we, as people who delve in law and policy, should always consider intersectionality comes from Degraffenreid v. General Motors, in which a collective of black female employees sued G.M. under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, alleging that the company’s industrial policies discriminated against black women. The court’s failure to recognize that the identity for which the black women sought protection was at the intersection of the legally protected categories of race and sex led to a corruption of the law and an injustice—dismissal of the claim. It didn’t recognize the reality that people live every day. And if a law isn’t meaningful in the real world, then what is its purpose?

So how do we address these complexities that arise around intersectionality? The answer is both surprisingly simple and surprisingly complicated - recognition.  It is critical to acknowledge that “diversity” doesn’t live in a vacuum, and identities do not exist on their own, like singles slices of American Cheese – individually wrapped. We are the sum of our experiences and influences. We are more than a single defining factor. When we stop seeing the complexity and intersections of individuals, our traditional one-dimensional approach will lead to travesties of justice like in Degraffenreid.

In addition to your work as a lawyer, you have also written a great deal of fiction, and taught a workshop at the White House in 2016 on including women with disabilities in storytelling. How do you think including people with disabilities – especially people whose experiences of diversity are not limited to their disabilities – in media can help improve the everyday experiences of people with disabilities in the workplace?

I’m actually going to reference Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson, 343 U.S. 495 (1952). The case is about censorship and film as it connects to the First Amendment, but there’s language from the case that highlights the importance of media, which, it could be argued, has only increased over time.

The Supreme Court observed how film impacts “public attitudes and behavior in a variety of ways, ranging from direct espousal of a political or social doctrine to subtle shaping of thought which characterizes all artistic expression,” that films “are a significant medium for the communication of ideas,” and their “importance as an organ of public opinion is not lessened by the fact that they are designed to entertain as well as to inform.”

Because of that importance, and because of how film shapes thought, disability should be a part of this cultural exchange. Good representation of disability within media can impact public perception and, I would say, could be even more impactful than laws in efforts to shift society.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views, policies, or positions of the US Department of Labor or American Bar Association.