The Future of Accessibility and Law

As we continue to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, we invite you to view a recording of a webinar we cohosted earlier this year on the future of accessibility and law. The discussion focused on some of the challenges that law school students with disabilities are facing during COVID-19 and how the legal education community is working to address them.

How can law schools ensure that candidates and students with disabilities are getting a fair chance and reasonable accommodations at all times, including this especially unsettling time amid the COVID-19 pandemic?

To explore this topic, LSAC CEO Kellye Testy and iLaw President Ken Randall hosted an episode of “Live with Kellye & Ken” that focused on the future of accessibility and law. Panelists included Dean Michael Waterstone of Loyola Law School, Los Angeles; Dean Ronald Weich of the University of Baltimore School of Law; Professor Peter Blanck, also chairman of the Burton Blatt Institute (BBI) at Syracuse University College of Law; and Leanne Shank, LSAC’s senior vice president for legal and corporate affairs and general counsel.

Among the highlights of this one-hour discussion was a look at some of the challenges facing law students with disabilities. Blanck, who has done tremendous work in this area throughout his career, shared the results of a 2020 study showing that in addition to the implicit (and explicit) bias experienced by lawyers across their careers, many also experience high levels of stress and mental health issues. The COVID-19 crisis, however, provides an opportunity for us to embrace a “new normal” where telecommuting, both in law school and in the legal profession, becomes more accepted; this could open the door for law schools to accommodate students for whom traveling to campus is difficult or impossible. Overall, Blanck proposes an extension of the traditional thinking regarding disability accommodations — one that includes a flexible approach that allows everyone to participate. Organizations using that approach tend to have greater employee satisfaction, retention, and productivity.

Waterstone and Weich echoed those sentiments, noting that with more people with disabilities now attending college, we must make sure they are accommodated should they choose to attend law school. All of us in legal education, though, currently exist in a moment where things are not “normal” and we’re leveraging new technology in the nimblest ways we can. As we do that, we must accommodate the needs of students with disabilities, which can be easier said than done. Remote instruction can pose problems for students with vision or hearing impairments, or for those with anxiety or mental health challenges, for example. There are no easy answers, but it’s important to discuss the questions and make sure people know they’re not being ignored. And Waterstone made a key point: When building any program, schools must consider accessibility from the beginning to avoid playing catch-up later.

An important topic of discussion was the pervasive bias against accommodations that still exists among some, and that bias, Blanck said, holds that those who have a disability and receive an accommodation are somehow getting an advantage in law school, and that they will in turn be disadvantaged on the bar exam or in their career. But accommodations are not about getting an advantage; they’re about leveling the playing field among otherwise qualified candidates and students. Blanck noted there is no research suggesting that such accommodations have a negative effect on bar passage rates or career success. Weich added that the key is to have an interactive, individualized process for every student and every class so that we can meet everyone’s needs while also preparing them for the bar and the profession.

Core to LSAC’s mission is promoting quality, access, and equity in law and education and supporting every individual who wants to pursue law school. As Shank noted, we underwent a detailed review of every process and policy to see that our procedures did not place any unnecessary and inequitable burdens on candidates and students with disabilities. That exercise formed a blueprint that law schools could use to review their own accommodations policies. Schools, she said, must understand the challenges these students face and be willing to modify their practices accordingly, because students with disabilities are needed in the legal profession more than ever with an increasingly diverse world. In keeping with our focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion, LSAC aims not only to be compliant with accessibility standards, but to ensure that our products and services are designed for people of all abilities.