Aly McKnight, a law student at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, discusses improvements to the accessibility of legal education...
When I started law school in 2019, I did not believe my professors would play a critical role in supporting me as a disabled law student. I assumed I would receive occasional words of affirmation, and I knew I could ask for extra time on my exams. But as I understood it, my disability was my responsibility, and mine alone.
When the pandemic hit, I became acutely aware that I could not shoulder the responsibility of navigating law school with a disability by myself. I had spent the first semester of my first year studying mostly privately, but I suddenly needed to talk through content with my peers. I needed one-on-one support from my teaching assistants. I needed my university’s disability resource center to provide me with clear instructions on their exam processes. I needed to regularly interact with my law school’s administration for ongoing support. But more than anything, I needed professors who were amenable to changing their teaching strategies to build learning environments that worked for my disabled peers and me.
One of the reasons I could continue law school during a global pandemic was that in 2020, my professors took steps to rise to the challenge of making our experience accessible. I was asked to write this piece during a busy end to an awful year, but I did not hesitate, because I believe that legal educators have started this work, and I am committed to supporting them as they continue it.
If you are a legal educator who wants to make the legal profession better for disabled folks in your classes, here are some ideas:
- Make more accessible documents:
- Use a size 12 font or larger and a sans serif font (such as Arial or Calibri). For most visually impaired people, a serif font (such as Times New Roman, Courier New, or Garamond) is more difficult to read.
- Ensure that the documents you share are compatible with screen readers. Both Microsoft Word and Adobe have built-in features that allow you to check the accessibility of a document.
- Refrain from uploading readings from copied pages of books, as these are often visually inaccessible and create organizational challenges. Additionally, these readings may be impossible to read utilizing screen readers.
- Get to know your online learning platforms.
- Take advantage of opportunities to learn about your school’s online learning platform. Technology trainings build more effective communication skills that you can use when explaining your use of a platform with your students. Build relationships with your Information Technology department!
- Explain to your students how you plan to use your online learning platform(s). Explicitly state how you organize folders, how you expect assignments to be uploaded, and how you will use the various functions of the platform. If a platform has tricky notification settings, show your students how to turn on notifications for the communication mechanisms you will use.
- Use a video conferencing platform that offers closed captioning. (As of recently, Microsoft Teams and Google both offer these services for free. Zoom does not currently offer this service for free, but you may be able to integrate third-party closed captioning by working with the IT department at your university).
- Be flexible about camera usage. As more and more research surfaces about the impacts of “Zoom fatigue,” stay mindful of how hours in front of a screen can impact student health. Teaching to a bunch of tiny blank screens is difficult and emotionally draining, and I believe it is okay to ask students to keep their cameras on for your own self-care! (I acknowledge that not all my disabled student colleagues will agree with me on this point, and I respect the continuing debate that occurs on this topic.) Regardless, provide students with options for how to communicate with you if they need to be off-screen, and trust that they are making the best choices for their health.
- Be open to feedback and conversations about disability.
- Provide a private and/or anonymous way for students to give you feedback about accessibility issues. This may be through email, a teaching assistant, or an anonymous survey. The more options you provide, the more likely you are to gain useful feedback.
- Be open to providing tailored accommodations for disabled students without a burden of proof. University disability centers often require students to submit excessive medical paperwork and evidence of past accommodations to gain access to solutions like notetakers, extra time on exams, or recordings of classes. Legal educators have a unique opportunity to minimize disabled students’ interactions with these intrusive processes by working with students on an individual basis, or by designing classroom experiences that are universally accessible.
- If you are a Twitter user, follow disability activists and disability law scholars, as well as disabled law students. Through our work at the National Disabled Law Students Association, we have been utilizing the #CripTheLaw hashtag (coined by my friend and colleague Lucy Trieshmann) which brings the #LawTwitter and #DisabilityTwitter communities together in a virtual space, rooted in the values of Crip Legal Theory. Please join us in that space.
- Think about disabled students’ experiences when you design classes.
- Wear a microphone to clarify and amplify your sound. (This is especially important if you are teaching in a large room, or if you are presenting to both in-person and remote students.) In addition to supporting students who may be hard of hearing, microphones support students who have auditory processing disorders or other disabilities that impact processing speed.
- Make your slides and your lecture recordings available to the class.
- Play your class in your head and imagine what the experience would be like for a student who cannot see, cannot hear, or who has limited mobility. Are you asking students to rely on a visual without reading it out loud? Are you asking students to listen to something without providing a transcript? Are you asking students to get into small groups or move about the classroom in a way that will be uncomfortable or painful for a physically disabled student? Change your strategies accordingly.
- Be abundantly clear about your expectations of your students. Say your expectations out loud, share your expectations in written communications, and make your expectations available online. One of the most common issues I hear students (both disabled and nondisabled) share in law school is that they “do not know what the professor is looking for.” Clarity about expectations alleviates student anxiety and helps students produce work that legal educators are more likely to find engaging.
- Use your platform to shift culture.
- Normalize sleep, sick days, therapy, exercise, and vacation as valuable parts of being a healthy attorney. Support policies that create cultures of health in your campus community and in the legal profession.
- Use the language of the disability movement when you discuss disability in classes. The law uses archaic, offensive terms to describe disabled people. That law may appear in cases, but as a legal educator, you have the power to set the standard of how your class will discuss cases, and you can provide alternatives to harmful language.
- Make student mental health a goal. I had a professor start our class this quarter by stating, “It is my top goal to ensure that this class does not make your mental health worse.” She also gave examples of specific ways she had structured the class to meet that goal. I am working my tail off in that class, and it is because I know that every assignment was selected with student well being in mind. That’s incredibly motivating for me!
- Debunk stereotypes about lawyers and substance use. It is true that we are a part of a profession with exposure to trauma that can often lead to high rates of substance use disorder. However, we need not remain a profession with high rates of substance use disorder, and that starts with how we speak about alcohol and drugs in the classroom. As a professor, you may not know which students are impacted by substance use, or which students are working on their own sobriety. Minimize references to alcohol as a coping mechanism or a requirement for celebration. Promote self-compassion, connection, recovery, and health care.
- Be willing to offer thoughtful critiques to colleagues that only cater to one learning style. Challenge faculty members who insist upon reinforcing the harmful ideology that there is only one way to be a successful law student.
This is not exhaustive. It is not a blueprint for universally accessible design in legal education, and it should not be used that way. It is one of many resources available to legal educators who want to lay a foundation for accessibility in their classrooms. I hope that in partnership, the disability community and the legal community will continue to tailor this list and build it out.
I am lucky. A lot of items on this list are on here because of my professors. I have professors who show up for disabled students. They are imperfect, and their efforts are often piecemeal, rather than a product of intentional, universal design. But I would be remiss not to highlight the work that legal educators do that does take the voices of disabled law students into account. We belong to a profession where many legal educators are doing this work, and I want to acknowledge that their little changes have made a big difference. I hope we can continue to learn from disabled law students and the professors who have listened to them this year.
Aly McKnight is a second-year law student at Northeastern University School of Law. She is the Director of Social Media for the National Disabled Law Students Association.
Suggested Citation: Aly McKnight, Legal Educators Have the Power to Cultivate a More Accessible Profession, JURIST – Student Commentary, December 20, 2020, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2020/12/aly-mcknight-legal-educators-accessibility/.
This article was prepared for publication by Brianna Bell, a JURIST Senior Editor. Please direct any questions or comments to her at email@example.com.
Opinions expressed in JURIST Commentary are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JURIST's editors, staff, donors or the University of Pittsburgh.