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Lack of Accommodations Forced Me to Leave Law School

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Disability … disabled… chronically ill … challenged …

I was born with cerebral palsy, developed epilepsy when I was 2 and had brain surgery at age 12. Throughout my life I have had hundreds of hospitalizations, imaging tests, and five surgeries in 18 years. In all this time in hospitals, I was rather traumatized by having spent a huge part of my life in a limbo of waiting, expecting, preparing for death — then surviving the unimaginable. At some point before, and even after my brain surgery, I had what is called psychogenic nonepileptic seizures (PNES). My body, psyche, subconscious ultimately manifested the trauma, stress, survival mode, in a way it knew so well. Awful, isn’t it?

In the disabled community, parents across the world seek success stories, out of desperation and grief. They grieve the life they had imagined for their children. They want to know that ultimately, their children will be OK within whatever their limitations are.

People love these stories. Stories of others surviving. It makes you say “Wow. My life isn’t all that bad,” or “man, if that was me, I could never (fill in the blank)…”

But what they will never understand unless they are told by those actually living with it, is that it is terrible. Terrifying. Isolating. Exhausting… to always need to be OK. To hold yourself to a standard of trying to live your life, knowing you are dependent on someone else, potentially for the rest of your life.

Years after my brain surgery I graduated high school with honors. Four years later I finished college with honors again (a 3.6 GPA).

My first year in undergrad I lived on campus with roommates. I had the most amazing friend, Vona, who I met at orientation. We lived in the same dorm building on the same floor, so I often went to her for shoelaces and getting my hair up in a ponytail — the few things I couldn’t do on my own.

One of the most frustrating things about independent living was always having to find alternate ways of doing things on my own, and always needing to ask for help. I cried often over little things. I wished my disability away. I cursed my parents for having me. Letting me live. I didn’t want to live with pain. With the extras. But I had to. I needed to prove I was who everyone looked up to. What an exhausting task.

Even walking into my apartment sometimes took five minutes, between carrying books and whatever else I had in my hand. I cried more times than I can count. My boyfriend at the time was absolutely amazing and would come and help do my laundry, and drive me to Walmart for groceries twice a month.

But I did it. I succeeded. I was equipped with the tools to make it… and damn, if I didn’t. Then I did it again.

In 2022, I got a full scholarship to law school, in my graduate entrance tests, I scored above average. The average LSAT score is 150. I had a 154. What an accomplishment. Out of all the people applying to law schools, even those that had it made, without any disabilities, I was better than average.

In the fall of 2022, I attended St. Thomas Law School. It was brutal and amazing. It was everything they tell you lawyers are — brash, brilliant, invigorating — and so very condescending. They tear you down, humiliate you… to, in hopes, make you an amazing attorney.

I struggled in this environment. I felt out of place. Not that I couldn’t cut it. But I knew I wouldn’t strive in an environment with little motivation and encouragement. So, I was forced to walk away.

The second aspect of St. Thomas that forced me to walk away was their lack of infrastructure for disability resources. The blatant discrimination was telling: of the school, and the profession.

Because of my cerebral palsy, and only having use of one hand, my typing speed is obviously affected. Computer technology adaptability is a huge part of occupational therapy in children with CP. Even though I have written papers, studies, essays, without problems, I struggled to take class notes. When I requested note taking assistance (an accommodation I got in undergrad), I was told “notetaking is an essential lawyering skill, if you’re unable to take notes, you are unfit for the legal profession.” When I emphasized my rights under the ADA, they were condescending. That is like saying, if you can’t walk, you can’t be a lawyer.

I asked classmates and mentors for help; I was met with resistance. Quid pro quo. You’re the competition, right?

Either way — it was discriminatory and unfair. Even illegal to refuse reasonable accommodations. The catch? The loopholes in the ADA allow for religious institutions to be exempt from following this. Because St. Thomas is a Catholic university, they fall into this exemption.

My father, my greatest strength, never made me feel disabled. He said I could do it all. He had the most faith in me, and he was so proud. My mother, my biggest advocate, has spent my whole life trying to make it easier for me to live with my disability.

Everyone was so proud. So excited that not only had I survived paralysis, near death, and everything in between, I was in the top. Top of my class. I was the success story.

My neurologist for over 15 years called my mother in 2015 after my EEG showed no seizure activity and told her “Your daughter is a miracle.” Medical miracle. I felt like it too. Yes, I struggled, but I always reminded myself I couldn’t quit because I needed to show them, prove to them and everyone, the world, that I could. That I did.

Society often sees disabled people as an inconvenience; an unnecessary expense, diminishing us.

Disabled people are people. We aren’t just stories. We aren’t always OK, and you know what? That is OK. More than OK actually.

So, the next time someone with a disability tells you their story, don’t tell them how inspiring. Our job isn’t to inspire you… to make you feel better about yourself. Don’t put us on that pedestal. Tell us you see us.

Originally published: February 16, 2023
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