Op-Ed: A New Voice for Disabled Students and Allies

Written by Chantalle Hanna, with additional reporting by Aditi Juneja

Americans with disabilities comprise about 22 percent of the non-institutionalized population and 30-40 percent of people who are incarcerated. They are employed at a rate that is less than half the national average and are twice as likely to live under the poverty line. These gaps are exceedingly profound among people with cognitive disabilities or mental health conditions. 23 percent of people shot and killed by police so far this year have a mental health condition, while an estimated 33-50 percent of individuals killed by law enforcement had some disability. Disability is pervasive, yet all too often, it is forgotten in decision making by policymakers, professors, and peers.

I became interested in disability issues when a family member was diagnosed with autism, which at the time seemed devastating. In time, I discovered that I was most troubled not by inherent differences in cognition, communication, or behavior, but by what amounted to a prognosis of a marginalized life. To unburden a diagnosis of difference from despair, we must dismantle societal barriers, including stigma.

Disability rights frameworks envision a more inclusive society. By applying a disability lens to society, we can see our undeniable interdependency. This realization promotes respect for our differences and respective contributions.

I am troubled that professors at the law school are not always thoughtful in discussing disability when it intersects with the material being covered. This can happen, for example, by referring to people with cognitive impairments not as people first but merely incompetents, or through erasing from the curriculum how society has decided to allocate the right to contract and who is implicitly excluded from participating in that right.

I believe that in order to be effective lawyers we need to be intersectional and inclusive advocates. Furthermore, I believe that disability advocacy is often not about advocating in place of, but rather amplifying, the voices of those that are disabled and using my (temporarily) able-bodied privilege to promote access for those that are too often excluded from these spaces. This, of course, is part of a broader conversation about how to be an effective ally regarding all aspects of identity. There are plenty of people with disabilities who are self-advocates. Two of them are my co-founders of a new student group called the Disability Allied Law Students Association.

Our goal is to create both community and advocacy for those with disabilities and their allies. Our focus for the coming year will be to collaborate with other student groups to make sure disability is included in the important conversations already happening around campus surrounding topics such as criminal justice reform, employment, and immigration. We hope you’ll join us in this quest for disability rights, inclusion, and social justice.