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February 01, 2008

February 2008: Professor Michael A. Schwartz

Law professor with disability uses law school clinic to help break down attitudinal barriers.

The mark of a fine actor is that he makes you believe that he actually is that character. To attempt such a feat, the actor may use drama, humor, or pathos. Michael A. Schwartz, a deaf professor of law who is also an actor, uses his acting skills in his classroom, entering into an interactive dialogue with his students to help them realize that empathy and a desire to change attitudes are necessary to advance the civil and human rights of people with disabilities.

Professor Schwartz, who holds an M.A. in Theater Arts, traded in his copy of Playbill for a lawbook. He now has a J.D. from New York University School of Law, an L.L.M. from Columbia University, and a Ph.D. from Syracuse University’s School of Education.

Professor Schwartz directs the Disability Rights Clinic at Syracuse University, where he teaches a year-long seminar course and supervises approximately 10 students working on disability-related cases. He has been profoundly deaf since birth, so making use of the law to advocate for people with disabilities was a natural choice. Professor Schwartz finds the classroom, like the stage and the courtroom, is an ideal setting for his advocacy work. A sign language interpreter works as a common bridge between the deaf professor and his hearing students and colleagues to facilitate communication between everyone. As Professor Schwartz put it, “The interpreter is not my interpreter. He is OUR interpreter. He belongs to all of us!”

“I grew up struggling to fit in the hearing world and thus developed sensitivity towards others who struggle against racism, homophobia, and sexism,” Professor Schwartz said, “At the core of every struggle, we are all trying to make it in the world.” Professor Schwartz hopes that his students, working through their cases and observing his attitude and actions in the clinic, develop an ability to empathize with their clients. “One’s ability to assist his or her client improves greatly when you can get into their minds and hearts,” Professor Schwartz observes.

Yet, the ability to empathize is only one way to help people with disabilities. The attitudes of people who make faulty assumptions about the disabled must change. Professor Schwartz says that over the course of his 27 years in law he has either directly experienced or seen egregious discrimination against the disabled by lawyers, law organizations, and judges. While there is no excuse for such behavior where it exists, Professor Schwartz believes ignorance, wrong assumptions about disability, and misunderstanding to be at the root of “bad” attitudes, so, for him, education is key to raising awareness and understanding. The deaf law professor insists, “The legal profession has to recognize the value of including people with disabilities. Once the legal community fully embraces and empathizes with people with disabilities, the legal system can begin to fulfill its mission for justice.”