Law School Paves the Way for a Future Disability Rights Advocate
Darlene Hemerka is currently in her first year at Penn State Dickinson School of Law. Why law school one might ask? “To advance the rights of persons with disabilities and to educate the public and the legal profession about lawyers with disabilities,” she responds. Hemerka sees legislative policy as a key way to improve the lives of persons with disabilities. For example, she would like to help revise the current policies regarding the emergency evacuations for people with disabilities by, for instance, requiring businesses, schools, and building owners to purchase evacuation equipment.
Hemerka, who has cerebral palsy, uses a walker to get around. She credits her drive and future career plans—to be an advocate for the rights of persons with disabilities—to her disability. What has she learned about her disability from her mentors? First, your disability only defines you if you let it. Second, use your experiences with your disability to help serve others.
Hemerka’s rewarding experience with mentors led her to become a mentor. As captain of a sled hockey team—a variation of ice hockey for people with disabilities—she listened to the players talk about the challenges they faced, and sometimes shared how she handled certain situations. As an Americorps member, she helped high school freshman with their studies, listened to their struggles, and continually told them that she believed in them.
Having been born with a disability, Hemerka has received accommodations since grade school. How do you determine which accommodations work for you? “Trial and error,” says Hemerka. For law school, Hemerka downloads her textbooks to electronic devices so that she doesn’t have to carry them. And, because it takes her longer than others to write, she requested and was granted access to class lectures online. This allows her to go back over her notes and fill in any gaps. For accommodations that she finds no longer work, Hemerka reaches out to her Disability Services Coordinator to explore alternatives. “The faculty and staff at Penn State have been more than welcoming and willing to accommodate my needs so I can succeed.”
What can schools do to welcome and include students with disabilities? “Ensure that all programs, services, facilities, and events are accessible,” responds Hemerka. As an undergraduate at Rutgers Camden, she founded and was president of the Coalition for Disability Awareness (CFDA), a student organization that worked with faculty, staff, and the administration on accessibility issues. “Raising disability awareness was essential to starting the conversation.” CFDA hosted many such events, including a presentation on the benefits of employing persons with disabilities.