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Seeking accommodations in law school: Why, when, and how

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It simply used to be that people with disabilities often could not attend college, let alone law school. Those who did often faced uphill battles.

Fortunately, this no longer needs to be the case. One of the keys to success in law school for disabled students is to seek the accommodations you need as early as possible. It is okay to not know exactly what accommodations you need or what are available. Once you are acquainted with your school’s disability services, you can test out which accommodations are right for you.

Why seek accommodations

It may seem obvious why a disabled student would want to seek accommodations. However, for some students, there can be self-defeating beliefs that either they are not “disabled enough” to receive accommodations, that they can just tough it out, or that whatever accommodations the school has would not help. Those students may wait to see if they really need disability services.

If you take nothing else from this article, remember this: If you wait to see if you “really” need accommodations, then it is already too late. Letting yourself fall behind, get worse grades than you deserve, or unnecessarily increase your stressors during an already intense academic program is not a good idea. You are training to be an advocate — why not start by advocating for yourself?

Another common concern is that people will think your accommodations are unfair. While there are certainly insensitive non-disabled people who have said that people with disability accommodations are “messing up the curve,” it is best to ignore them. Accommodations help even out the playing field. Accommodations let disabled students access education and careers.

You do not have to tell people about your accommodations or disability if you prefer and you certainly do not need to defend yourself for having them. (With the caveat that some accommodations are obvious even if you do not tell people about them.) You are not at law school to make insensitive people feel better about themselves; you are there to get the most out of your legal education.

A final reason to seek accommodations is if you think you may need accommodations on the bar exam. It is notoriously difficult to get accommodations on the bar exam, but it is even harder if you did not receive them in law school. Do yourself a favor: If you think you may ever need accommodations, get them as early as you can.

What accommodations are available

One of the reasons people may not choose to seek accommodations is that they are not familiar with what is available to them. Good news: There are plenty of accommodation options, and perhaps more than you expect! This section highlights four kinds of accommodations: Those you can receive before class, in the classroom, during exams, and outside of academics.

Before class

You can receive accommodations before you ever set foot in the classroom. For example, if you are on a medication that makes you drowsy in the mornings, ask your disability services if you can take only afternoon classes.

Next, you will need to read the materials. If you use an e-reader, you should request access to accessible materials, since so many casebooks are in print. Similarly, if your professor or TA uses slides, you may ask for them to be sent to you in advance so that you can run them through your e-reader and familiarize yourself with them. Then, you’ll be ready for class.

In the classroom

The next bucket of accommodations are those you receive in the classroom. Students may have access through their school to hearing devices, such as the Roger Pen Hearing Aid, or to ASL interpreters. You can require that classes are recorded so you can watch them later if you miss them due to your disability and can even have them captioned. You can also request a note-taker or to be permitted to bring a laptop into a class that otherwise bans electronic devices. (Yes, there are still professors who tell students not to bring laptops.)

A final classroom accommodation that is unique to law school: The ability to ask not to be cold-called on certain days. This would also require communication with your professor, not just the disability office, but it can be a huge relief.

Exams

Third but certainly not finally, there are exams. Probably the most well-known accommodation is extra time, which is helpful for people with ADHD, who need to break to pump breastmilk, who need to take physical breaks due to chronic pain, or who experience panic attacks, among others. You may also be able to use dictation, to take the exam in a smaller room that is quieter, or have your exams spread out to different days.

Beyond academics

Finally, there are accommodations outside academics. These include housing accommodations if you live on campus, such as wheelchair-accessible rooms, flashing fire alarms, bed shakers, or a reduction in the number of roommates. Or if you are a commuter, you can get a reserved parking spot near the school. Remember, there are accommodations under the school’s control that are outside of the classroom — ask for them if you need them!

These lists are nowhere near exhaustive. Because most of 1L is lecture classes with final exams, this section focused on what would be most useful in those situations, but do also investigate support for seminars and experiential classes, like changing the due dates on final papers and presentations.

How to get accommodations

Start early. The process can be very long. If you do not already have extensive documentation of your disability, you will need to first obtain that from your medical providers. Each school has different requirements for what materials they need. For example, the school may require that you explain your previous accommodations history, why you require each accommodation, and what mitigating measures you have attempted to take in addition to medical documentation of the disability itself. You will then need to meet with your school’s disability services to work through what accommodations you will receive.

The good news is they may recommend accommodations that are not even on their public list. Their familiarity with the school and students with disabilities means that they may have inside knowledge of how to best navigate the school.

If you have already started classes, it may be harder to get accommodations, but certainly not impossible. You will need to find time to complete all of the requirements and then will wait weeks (or months) for your materials to process — during which time you will not have accommodations. This is why starting early is so important.

Last tips

Take the summer before starting to obtain and send in all the proper documentation you need, and to meet with your disability counselor. The process to receive accommodations may look so long that it isn’t worth it. It is. Do not despair and do not count yourself out! Only you can make your law school experience as smooth as possible.