Students at Harvard Law and elsewhere possess disabilities, visible and invisible, yet these disabilities are more often than not a source of strength and lawyers should be more cognizant of just how varied, valuable, and diverse persons with disabilities (PwDs) are.
That was just one message of many discussed at a “Diversity and Disability” panel last Friday. The event featured four speakers united by a desire to de-stigmatize disabilities. It was co-sponsored by HL Central, the Student Mental Health Association (SMHA), and the Black Law Students Association (BLSA), and organized by 1L Elisa Dun, who put the panel together through funds she received after winning this year’s TJ Duane Grant competition.
Some attendees were surprised to learn from Lime Connect President and CEO Susan Lang that at least one in ten college-aged students have disabilities. According to panelist Tiffany Yu, one reason for this is the effect of stigma: While more traditional components of diversity—race, gender, and socioeconomic status—are often celebrated at universities, discussion around disabilities is hushed.
Yu believes this is unfortunate, because for PwDs self-identity is not only defined by race or gender but also by disability.
“For people who don’t have a disability, being abled is probably a tiny little sliver…of their sense of who they are. For me, my disability is a huge part of my self-perception. If there is something that is a large part of identity, why should I not be more comfortable with it?” she asked.
Those with invisible disabilities face similar barriers as Ms. Yu.
“When you have an invisible [disability] it is extremely intimidating,” Ms. Lang said. “Often if someone has a physical disability, you can look at them and say, ‘Well, he is in a wheelchair, but I’m sure he’s a bright guy.’ But if you have an invisible disability people might question your intellectual ability. So there is a fear of disclosure, of being seen as ‘less than.’ There are many cases where a student will be ridiculed by a roommate for asking for extra time.”
Largely unable to use her right hand, Ms. Yu used to hide that fact from others out of embarrassment. “When I told people I had a disability and needed to shake hands with my left hand because of a car accident when younger, people became uncomfortable,” she said.
Yet according to Julie McCormack, the Director and Senior Clinical Instructor at the Law School’s Disability Litigation & Benefits Advocacy Clinic, Ms. Yu is far from alone—even at a place like Harvard Law.
“One fourth of the people sitting in this room will no longer be able to support themselves [in the future] because they will have some sort of disability. It is not the Other—it’s us,” Ms. McCormack said.
Some student-attendees were concerned about the way state bar associations view mental illness. Visiting Professor of Law Michael Ashley Stein, who participated in the drafting of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, said the Bar Association’s track record is troubling.
“The bars do it, they raise it, it’s discriminatory, it’s irrelevant, and it should be illegal,” Stein said, responding to a question about whether state bars ask about mental health history. “It encourages people not only to cover their conditions in the present and past but it also contributes to incidences of depression and suicide, [which are] much higher among people who practice law than in other professions.”
According to Professor Stein, one reason the bar’s emphasis on disabilities is troubling is because far from being a negative, disabilities are a source of strength. They give PwDs better problem-solving skills than they would otherwise have. Ms. Lang agreed.
“People with disabilities and people who have overcome adversity in other areas of their life have innovative strengths,” she said.
Despite a multiplicity of views, one theme emerged above all others: Disabilities are a very large part of what makes us diverse human beings, and whether we grapple with visible or invisible disabilities, by speaking out we can help reduce stigma and solidify the rights of PwDs.
Approximately seventy students and faculty attended the event, which was held in WCC 3018.