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Law Student Spotlight: Ethan Heller

 Ethan Heller, a rising 2L at Notre Dame Law School

Ethan Heller, a rising 2L at Notre Dame Law School

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

My disabilities are a deficit in phonemic synthesis and a weakness in auditory closure. What that basically means is that when I hear or read things for the first time, my brain processes them less like an organized template and more like a spiderweb of ideas. Over the years, I have learned not only how and when to apply special techniques to ensure I don’t lose information in that spiderweb, but also how to capture and utilize otherwise overlooked information. Long before I was ever a law student, through sometimes painful trial and error, I learned how to work with, instead of against, my brain. Through the unrelenting encouragement of my parents, some truly dedicated educators, and the general support from those close to me, I have arrived at where I am today.

What techniques have you developed over the years to overcome your obstacles? Have you encountered any obstacles or challenges from your employers, colleagues, or school?

One of the toughest obstacles I face is interpreting and retaining information in real time. With the help of some wonderful mentors and personal life experience, I have developed a combination of techniques including a personal shorthand that I use in written notes; have taken classes to improve my typing speed; and use imaginative devices to remember certain names, titles, and other important facts. It has taken years for me to develop these.

As for obstacles along the way, I am forever grateful to have had parents who were not only willing and knowledgeable in this regard, but also able to help. In hindsight, I am amazed by the time and effort it took them to help me along the way. My mother, in particular, has always been in my corner, making sure that whenever a disability-related obstacle presented itself, I had every tool at my disposal to confront it as an adult, I have now taken on this responsibility. Looking forward, if I am ever in a position to give back to the community, this is where I think I could do the most good. There are countless other students like myself who are undiagnosed or unable to get the help they need to succeed.  

I am grateful to be at a law school where the professors and staff are supportive in creating a culture where every student is offered an equal opportunity to learn. In my experience, their availability outside of the classroom has allowed for a more holistic learning experience.

Have you been active in the local or national disability community?  If so how?

I think it’s really important to be a member of a community whose voice is often not heard. Beyond being vocal, being physically there to show your support can mean the world to someone. In high school, I worked for a local summer camp, and was assigned to a young camper with a disability. I acted as their personal shadow and carried around their medication. At times there were certain activities that their disability forced them to take a backseat to I would come up with other ways to keep them engaged and involved in the camp experience. In essence, it was as if I was their personal camp counselor. 

 As a senior member of my college’s mock trial team, I provided all of our competitors, including those with disabilities, the opportunity to participate and contribute meaningfully to the team. I believe the diversity of  our team  lead to our success both in competition and in fostering the kinship we continue to share with one another. In law school, I am working with the Access-Able Student Panel on campus to set up a student panel in which older students can share what it’s like to work through the rigors of [law school or college] with the personal obstacles raised by having a disability.

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

I wanted to be a lawyer because in both my personal life and in my professional life I have been in situations where the only person in the room who seemed to remain calm was the lawyer. One day, I want to have the confidence and knowledge to look at someone whose world has become chaotic and be their source of stability. Growing up with my disability, I had plenty of times where I never thought I would be able to achieve academic success. Through my own experiences, I have grown to understand the reality of obstacles people may face throughout their lives. Having challenged myself to overcome the hurdles I have faced has instilled in me a drive to help others find ways to overcome their hurdles.  You can’t change who you are, but every obstacle can be used as a learning experience. I have to keep that in mind when the stress of law school mounts.

That said, I would also like to specifically mention one person in particular - my high school mock trial coach, William Martin. Mr. Martin was not only my mock trial coach but also my teacher, my mentor, and my life coach. Mr. Martin always believed in me, helped me through those troubling adolescent years but never once taking it easy on me. He taught me the importance of punctuality, he taught me how to be an effective public speaker, and what it meant to be a leader. It’s educators like Mr. Martin that people remember their entire lives. So for everything you have given me and my peers, and on behalf of all the students that have been lucky enough to have you in their corner, thank you Mr. Martin. 

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

I have been really interested in international law and the recent global implications of cyber security. The world around us is changing; every day more and more of the most intimate aspects of our lives are moving to the cloud. Being on the cutting edge of this ever-changing field is academically fascinating, and the demand to keep up with the constant change is sure to keep my career interesting moving forward.

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

Stop trying to be like everyone else, and find what works for you. This does not mean simply picking things that you find easy and sticking with them. The moments of my greatest growth were found at the crossroads where I felt most confused but most intrigued. Further, find someone who believes in you. Everyone needs support from time to time, and having people in your corner to encourage you when you want to quit can be the nudge it takes to pick yourself up and carry on. Lastly, find a healthy way to blow off some steam. Everyone has something that they do simply for the enjoyment; hold on to that, and don’t forget it’s ok to take time for yourself sometimes. Just be sure that when it’s time to get back to work, be ready to go.

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

In my young career, I have limited professional experience to really talk about this question. What I can say is that the general social trend of society moving towards a more inclusive and accepting workplace is good for the greater whole. Working with people who are the same leads to a collective group–think, which can stagnate, get repetitive, and lose the creative edge that really drives an industry. The very fact that institutions are actively recruiting different diverse applicants is a great way to keep the talent pool fresh and unique.

Since you’ve lived abroad, have you seen any differences in how other countries approach disability accommodations, and if so, how does it differ from the US?

My experiences abroad were some of the most amazing of both my professional and personal life. The safety-nets I had become accustomed to instantly vanished. I thrust myself into situations that I had never before encountered. One of the many unfortunate manifestations of my disability is it makes it very hard for me to pick up and learn new languages quickly. I was envious of my peers who ordered food and a taxi using the native language. However, I was grateful to both the tools I had developed to compensate for my disability, and as always for technology. A combination of Google Translate and a notebook that I carried with me at all times operated as support for my interaction. Growing up with my disability gave me the tools I needed to not only survive in these new environments, but also forced me to fully integrate myself into my environment.

Since your disability affects your ability to process spoken language, do you think there are ways the legal profession can better accommodate those types of disabilities specifically?

In my experience, the best way that legal profession can help people with similar disabilities to my own is to allow people to have the space to work in ways that work for them. Throughout my academic, professional, and even athletic experiences, I have always really appreciated the teachers, bosses, and coaches who understood that forcing people into a mold only hurts the team as a whole. Everyone from the top down has different styles that work best for their skills and weaknesses. When building a team, finding a leader that is both aware of the strengths and weakness of their team members, and is able to find a working system in which they can all thrive, is essential to a productive working environment.