May 08, 2017

Deb Steinberg


What is your disability? How does it affect you as a law student (and future lawyer)?

While I can proudly claim multiple disabilities, my depression and anxiety interfere with law school the most. The competitive nature of law school— students vying against each other for top grades—creates an isolating environment that exacerbates my depression. Everyone is so busy and stressed and so determined to be the person who works the hardest that it can be difficult to make and maintain meaningful connections, especially around exam periods. With my depression, I have trouble getting out of bed most mornings,  sometimes miss class, forget to eat because I’m just not hungry, and have trouble focusing when a million thoughts are running on a continuous loop in my mind.

What accommodations do you use in law school? Have you encountered any obstacles or challenges from your school, employers, or colleagues in obtaining accommodations?

I can access the recordings of the classes that I miss when I’m too depressed to attend or miss significant portions of the class due to my anxiety. I initially requested this accommodation for my migraines, because when I first started law school I was unsure if I could access the same accommodations for my mental illnesses despite their parallel effects. Unfortunately, there have been multiple occasions where the class recording did not work properly on a day when I needed it, and I would have to reach out to the professor and be instructed to get notes from another student and contact the technical support department myself.

I am more open about my mental health issues now and more confident about requesting accommodations, but doing so created additional challenges and required a significant amount of self-advocacy for which I barely had the energy. For example, while I was exploring a clinical opportunity, my ability to work with a group, adhere to a set schedule, and submit assignments on time was questioned, and the possibility of me having some sort of breakdown was raised.   Also, during my 1L spring semester, despite my efforts to find resources on campus that would help me figure out what accommodations would allow me to complete the semester, I was advised to either drop the class or take a leave of absence.  That being said, some of my professors have been extremely generous and accommodating. This semester I selected courses based on the reputations of the professors for being supportive of students who need accommodations because it’s exhausting to keep running into walls.

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

During my first year in law school, I disclosed my disability to colleagues and potential employers because my reason for becoming a lawyer was to advocate for people with disabilities, reduce the stigma around mental health, and make it easier for people to seek out the resources they need. Now I no longer disclose to potential employers, based on advice by some disability rights activists and attorneys that it may result in me not getting hired, and that I can ask for accommodations after I am hired regardless. However, I struggle with this decision because I am unable to explain why these jobs and internships aimed at improving access to mental health care services matter so much to me. Nonetheless, I continue to disclose to my peers and colleagues because the chances are high that they’ve experienced their own mental health issues.

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

I was working in health policy after college, and knew I needed a graduate degree to continue to do the work in which I was most interested. My boss was my mentor and inspiration, and she had attended Georgetown University Law Center so I decided to follow in her footsteps. I believed a legal education would be the best route for me to tackle the barriers that prevent people from accessing mental health services, though I am not yet sure what type of legal work I will pursue after graduation.

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

This semester I’m doing an externship with the Disability Rights Section at the Department of Justice, and every day I’m grateful for and inspired by the efforts they make to create a diverse and inclusive environment for people with disabilities. I have not found many other spaces that are as conducive for people with disabilities outside of the communities that are specifically working on these types of issues. I think law schools in particular could do a better job of both raising awareness and supporting students with disabilities. I’m consistently disappointed when school efforts to improve “diversity” fail to include disability as a form of diversity. There is a seemingly constant stream of panels and coalitions and committees at my school, yet I can count on one hand the number of speakers and events I’ve known of this year that discuss disabilities openly, and I’ve had to plan most of them. Students need to hear from speakers who have disabilities so that they can see they are not alone and can succeed in the legal profession. The academic resources actually need to be receptive to accommodating and assisting people who are struggling. Most of the people I know choose not to disclose their disabilities, especially ones related to mental health, because they believe they will not get the support they need.

Tell us a little about your work with the Georgetown Law Mental Health Alliance. What does the organization do, and what is your role in it?

I am the President of the Georgetown Law Mental Health Alliance and have planned a few different types of events over the past two years. I started up a Mental Health Support Network so that students can talk about their experiences with their peers in a supportive environment. I organized several events about stress and disabilities more generally to help educate and assist the larger school population. More recently, I’ve been coordinating with attorneys and professionals who work in areas related to mental health litigation, advocacy, and public policy to update students on current events, provide networking opportunities, and help see how they can get involved.

What do you think law schools can do to better accommodate students with disabilities?

All law schools should have an ADA coordinator on the law campus who acts as a dedicated advocate for students with disabilities. Doing so will go a long way in creating and maintaining an environment in which everyone can equally benefit from the opportunities that are available in an integrated setting.

 

Have you done any other disability-related work during your time in law school, and if so, what?

I have been extremely fortunate to get several internships and opportunities to engage in disability-related work while in school, especially since we have so few courses dedicated to disability law and none related to mental health. I spent my 1L summer at the Mental Health Legal Advisors Committee in Boston. This semester I am doing an externship at the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division Disability Rights Section, and last semester I did pro bono work for University Legal Services Disability Rights DC.