Paul L. Caron

Thursday, June 9, 2022

Am I Disabled? Disability Identity And Law Faculty

Katie R. Eyer (Rutgers; Google Scholar), Am I Disabled? Disability Identity and Law Faculty, 71 J. Legal Educ. __ (2022):

Journal of Legal Education (2022)This short Essay addresses the dilemmas of disability self-identification from the perspective of those who are ambiguously disabled, and calls on greater numbers of law faculty to situate themselves within, rather than outside, the disability community.

We have a long way to go before our law schools, and the wider legal profession, can be a truly welcoming space for people with disabilities. Currently, the best many law students with disabilities can hope for is for their accommodations to be smoothly granted, to find a few understanding professor allies, and, if they are lucky, to find community with other disabled law students. Casual bias, lower expectations, and struggles over accessibility remain a routine part of many law students’ law school experience. Out in the legal profession, those with visible disabilities are likely to face explicit bias in hiring, even as law firms purport to include disability among the categories of diversity that they value. And both within law schools and without, those with disabilities are likely to find that the structural norms of the profession celebrate exclusionary rituals of physical and mental stamina rather than value the strength and diversity of perspectives that those with nonnormative minds and bodies may bring.

Thus, the path to a disability-positive future for the legal profession is long and will surely involve many steps beyond the modest suggestion that more ambiguously disabled law faculty embrace disability identity. Indeed, many of the most important steps that must be taken for law schools and the legal profession to reach a disability-positive future are those that will require a more fundamental reorientation—away from a model that values ableist ideals of stamina and performance above all else—and toward a recognition of what is lost for all of us when we strip the profession of those who cannot, or do not wish to, run the gauntlet of the rituals of stamina that we impose (the 1L year, the bar exam, all-night associate hours).

But small steps matter too, and this essay suggests that one step that many law faculty can take is to consider our own identity, and whether we should situate ourselves within—or without—the disability community. For those of us who are ambiguously disabled—and who have conditions that are considered disabilities under civil rights law (like major depressive disorder, HIV, OCD, diabetes, or cancer)—it is worth considering why so many of us do not self-identify as disabled, and what may be lost as a result. Especially those of us who are tenured faculty members have unique privilege, power and positional security—certainly far more than our students, staff, or even non-tenure-track faculty do. Claiming a disability identity may create space for others to do the same—or to feel fully welcomed and included in our community—or to openly advocate for change. It may change the
perceptions of disability for the better among those who will go on to be our judges, policymakers, and future lawyers. 

This of course does not mean that all law faculty can or should adopt a disability identity. And it surely does not mean that those of us who do claim such an identity should ignore concerns about co-opting identity, or taking up space that is not properly ours. But by adopting an attitude of an ally, even as we situate ourselves within the disability community, it may be possible to navigate through those concerns with integrity. And in so doing, we may help to create space within our institutions—and ultimately the legal profession as a whole—for people with disabilities to be fully included, welcomed, and valued.

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