chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.

Student Lawyer

Diversity, Equity & Inclusion

Law Students with Disabilities: Finding Your Community and Advocating for Yourself

Jordan Lambdin


  • Law students with disabilities can succeed by being aware of their accommodation options and finding the people who understand and support them. 
Law Students with Disabilities: Finding Your Community and Advocating for Yourself
kali9 via iStock

Jump to:

Many students undergo personal struggles through law school, but students with disabilities experience unique and different obstacles. They and their support systems and advocates have joined together as a community to ensure the legal profession is expanding to ensure the broadest opportunities for them.

Advocacy Starts with Yourself

As a law student, Marissa Ditkowsky served as a disability liaison for her student bar association after making it clear to her school’s administration that there was a need to represent students with disabilities in an official position. At the end of her 1L year, Ditkowsky was advocating on her own behalf. “I told the SBA, ‘We need a position and someone to focus on and further disability issues,’” she recalled.

Ditkowsky, now the Disability Economic Justice Counsel at the National Partnership for Women & Families, said her law school wasn’t accessible for people with disabilities. “The library didn’t have an automatic door, and the door was too heavy,” she said. She needed help getting into the library each time.

Further into her law school career and while in her position on the SBA, many students recognized Ditkowsky as a resource and asked her about requesting accommodations. That included, she explained, many fellow students whom she didn’t realize had chronic disabilities who asked for her help. Ditkowsky lobbied for additional accommodations to make the law school campus more accessible.

“One of the things about being disabled is that you have to deal with accessibility issues, and you have to advocate a lot,” she added.

Ditkowsky became one of the founders of the National Disabled Law Students Association, a nonprofit that ensures that legal professionals and law schools are accessible and inclusive for people with disabilities.

An Aha Moment

Law students with disabilities can be granted accommodations during exams or written assignments. Accommodations can include a reduced course load, private rooms during exams, the use of a computer during exams, the assignment of a designated notetaker, or the option to record notes.

Each school has a different process for applying for accommodations for the bar exam. Accommodations are granted based on the student’s particular diagnosis, documented history, and need. Many schools recommend you begin to seek accommodations for law school early on and to work with the school to get the accommodations documented to prepare for the bar exam.

For students granted accommodations, the additional resources create an environment where students can better focus on the required work. Ditkowsky herself used accommodations throughout law school. “I found being granted time-and-a-half is helpful for purposes of dictation because arms and hands can get fatigued and to get through bouts of brain fog,” she said.

Paige Munson, director II at the Center for Independence of the Disabled in New York and a graduate of Cardozo Law School, didn’t use accommodations during her time in law school but used them for the bar exam.

For Munson, lengthy exams were difficult. “Getting through four-hour exams every semester was the biggest challenge,” she said. “It was intense. It was like I was preparing for some kind of sports competition when I was getting ready to take those exams. It was a painful time. That’s where I saw my disability impacting my law school experience.”

But she didn’t seek any accommodations before the bar exam. “At that time, I wasn’t as educated in disability law as I’ve become,” she stated. “I’d heard of accommodations only in relation to students with a learning disability, such as getting extra time or having the exam read to them. So I’d thought of accommodations in those terms. I didn’t realize I could get a setup with book stands, laptop stands, and all that for my testing experience until my doctor brought it up to me.”

It was while she was preparing for the bar exam that Munson explained to her doctor her experiences and concerns regarding law school exams. “I had such a difficult time getting through a four-hour exam that I kept thinking, ‘What am I going to do for the bar exam? How am I going to make it?’” she explained.

“As the bar exam got closer, I brought that up to my doctor,” recalled Munson. “I said, ‘I don’t think I’m going to be able to do it.’ When he mentioned the book stands, I was just like, ‘Why haven’t I done this all along?’ So I sought and got accommodations for the bar exam.”

To receive the accommodations, Munson completed a form on the New York State Board of Law Examiners website, which she submitted along with a doctor’s note. Her request was approved quickly, and she brought her equipment, including a laptop stand and detachable keyboard, to the bar exam.

Munson experienced a sharp contrast between law school exams and the bar exam. “It was so much better because my focus was on the exam and not the pain in my neck I’d have been experiencing,” she described. “After the bar exam, there was no physical recovery period like I’d had from my other exams, where it would be days of going to physical therapy and taking anti-inflammatories just to get myself back to my normal state. I wish I’d thought of this at the beginning of my law school experience.”

That’s an area where schools can do better, she stated. For instance, Munson believes orientations can better serve as a place for students with disabilities to learn their accommodation options.

“For students with disabilities, it would be helpful to show people that accommodations are available and the process for requesting an accommodation if they need one,” she noted.

Finding Your Community

The number of practicing lawyers with disabilities is small. According to the 2020 Vault/MCCA Law Firm Diversity Survey Report, 0.65 percent of practicing lawyers identify as disabled; this number increased from the 2007 survey in which 0.15 percent of all attorneys identified as disabled.

The lack of, or the small size of, communities of students with disabilities in law school can exacerbate the isolation many law students experience through their first year. Becoming part of groups of people with similar experiences can lead to community support.

Christopher Schuyler, senior staff attorney with the Disability Justice Program at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest and a person who stutters, felt isolated during law school. “I didn’t have much of a community of people who stutter, and I wasn’t part of a larger community of people with disabilities,” he stated.

Schuyler decided to pursue a career in law because he was looking to best use his skills in writing and constructing arguments. He was a philosophy major in college and gravitated toward reading and discussing dense material.

Those skills have been a big part of his law practice—reading dense case law and discussing the possibilities and outcomes with co-counsel or making arguments against opposing counsel. His work today focuses on equal access to programs and services, including transportation, medical care, and housing.

In some ways, law school was more challenging for Schuyler because he felt isolated, “I think if I could do it over again, I’d have liked to have found a community when I was in law school,” he said. “I think it would have improved my experience.”

Despite feeling isolated, Schuyler didn’t want to appear less capable than his peers.

“I was very aware of stigmas that might be attached to being a person who stutters,” he stated. “In the elite, highly competitive world of law school, I didn’t want to show weakness. The flip side of the coin is that, in not wanting to show weakness, I felt I had to work maybe twice as hard as everybody just to make sure I was excelling in everything I could control. That added pressure to the experience.”

Schuyler has since sought out communities of support, and he has advocated for himself in ways he didn’t in law school. “If I could do it all again, I certainly wish I’d have had the tools I have now,” he said.

Ditkowsky found her community while in law school, though most of her peers with disabilities were located in other cities. “I started connecting with other disabled law students from across the country,” she stated. “I hadn’t before connected with openly disabled law students.”

New-Lawyer Experiences

Once he began volunteering for organizations for people who stutter, Schuyler became interested in doing more advocacy work for people with disabilities. The work made him feel part of a community of those with disabilities and further solidified his desire to work on behalf of people with disabilities.

That led him to the work he does today. Schuyler has advocated for children with disabilities within school systems and is part of many groups and communities that relate to the intersection of legal work, disability rights advocacy, and parenting.

Schuyler’s disability has shaped his career. “It’s been a foundation for a lot of what I’m doing,” he stated. “I think the work I do now is the work I want to do for my career. To get to where I am, I needed to identify and come to terms with my disability. That helped me get an insight into the larger world of disability issues, how broad those issues are, and how much work there is to do.”

Schuyler now works passionately for his community of people who stutter, though he began his career working in a law firm doing class action work, where he learned the skills necessary as a new lawyer. After he moved into disability advocacy work, Schuyler remained there.

“One of the things I love about disability law is that there are so many opportunities to make new laws and to improve the laws that are on the books,” he noted. “In so many other practice areas, the law is relatively settled. In disability law, you’re constantly looking at new problems and improving the body of law.”

They’ve Been Where You Are

These disability advocates have advice for law students with disabilities. “A lot of people will tell you to do things one way or another,” explained Ditkowsky. “That advice is inflexible and not helpful for people with disabilities or people in general. Everyone learns their own way, especially disabled people. If you’re doing something different, but that’s the best way for you to learn, you’re not a failure or doing something wrong. You’re doing what you need to do.”

Case in point: The push Ditkowsky received when it came to group studying during her first year of law school. “I felt pressure to join a group, and I felt left out,” she said. “But it was best for me to study alone. And I did just fine.”

If you’re only considering law school at this stage of your academic career, Ditkowsky suggested avoiding a school that’s difficult to navigate with a disability. But that might be a challenge in itself.

“It’s hard to find a law school that’s perfect when it comes to access,” she stated. “Law school isn’t going to be easy because of that, and you have to be prepared for that.”

Schuyler emphasizes the importance of seeking accommodations early on. When you request an accommodation for the bar exam, having a history of accommodations can be helpful. “It’s one of the things bar examiners look for when granting or denying applications for accommodations,” he explained. “They look at whether the student has a history of seeking accommodations earlier in life. Having received them in law school is very important for that purpose as well.”

Finding people who support you is also critical. “It’s helpful to have a community of people, perhaps with your disabilities or others, to have that connection,” stated Schuyler.

How to Be an Ally

What if you don’t have a disability but want to stand side by side with your peers with disabilities? Schuyler suggested getting involved in organizations run by students with disabilities.

Also, work to inform yourself about the nature of various disabilities. “Ask your classmates with disabilities questions,” suggested Schuyler. “If you’re in a conversation and you have a question about how their disability affects their life, if it’s an appropriate time, ask it. Demystifying disability is an important part of removing stigmas that can be attached to it. Talking about it is important.”

Also, don’t assume accommodations give others an edge. “Don’t accuse those with disabilities of lying or using accommodations to get ahead,” Ditkowsky advised. “Dispel yourself of that notion. There’s no world in which I get an advantage.”

And don’t get hung up on language. “Even just saying the word disability,” stated Schuyler. “A lot of people want to frame it in different ways—but just say disability. This is our power. We’re proud to identify as people with disabilities.”