Learning Law Differently: Accommodations and Support for Learning Disabilities in Law School

By: Jacqueline Friedman, PhD

Over the past decade, increasing numbers of students have sought accommodations for disabilities during undergraduate studies. The most recent estimates indicate that approximately 14% of students in undergraduate programs report having a disability.[1] A smaller percentage of these students pursue graduate degrees, with around 2% of graduate students self-identifying as having a disability. However, official records estimate 7% of graduate students have a diagnosis indicative of a disability.[2] The intersection of the increased complexity and rigor of graduate study with reduced willingness to self-identify and seek accommodations can create an environment less conducive to student success as evidenced by the finding that less than 3% of 25-64 year olds with a disability persisted with graduate studies in order to attain a graduate degree.[3]

Law professors are at the forefront of seeing students struggle who may have an invisible disability impacting learning that the student may not have chosen to disclose. Law students may have been able to compensate without accommodations or a formal diagnosis in an undergraduate environment depending on the size of the classes, underlying strengths and relatively lower intellectual demands compared to the intensity of a graduate environment surrounded by high-performing peers. A cognitive shift may be needed on the part of the student to understand academic accommodations as an interactive process that “levels the playing field” based on a careful assessment of the impact of a disability on academic performance rather than an unfair advantage over other students. Faculty encouragement can be a critical piece towards this mental shift, since direct encouragement from a faculty member to seek help may be the impetus needed for a student struggling academically despite maximal effort to persist and thrive in a rigorous law school environment.

The most common accommodations in a law school classroom mirror the accommodations that students often receive in undergraduate and secondary education settings. For each academic accommodation, there is corresponding documentation that clearly delineates how the accommodation is in fact creating an equitable environment for the student compared to other students without that disability. For example, students may be granted extended test-taking time to compensate for demonstrated low processing speed or visual deficits. A low distraction test-taking environment may be granted to reduce anxiety in a testing situation for students who have a history of high levels of anxiety during written exams. Allowing a laptop for note-taking or recording of lecture material can allow a student with fine motor or processing speed difficulties to accurately capture and encode material during lecture. Attendance considerations for medical conditions can allow students balancing an unpredictable set of medical symptoms while still pursuing graduate study. With all accommodations, the goal is to assist the student in determining what adjustments to the traditional learning environment could be reasonably modified to allow that student to have as equitable an experience as a student without a disability as possible, without  compromising fundamental course expectations.

Incorporating aspects of universal design in assessment of fundamental course expectations can further aid all students, including those with disabilities. For example, selecting assessment design and objectives that parallel what students will be expected to demonstrate as a post-graduate professional rather than a traditional “test” may be more meaningful to students.  Educational experts, such as those at the Teaching and Learning Collaborative at Wake Forest University, can provide a vital outside perspective on course design, regardless of specific subject matter. Fundamentally, awareness and acceptance that students learn differently and seeking an outside perspective on how to best assess student learning will provide support for both students and professors.  Both have an ultimate goal of student learning and success at the post-graduate level.

Dr. Friedman has practiced as a clinical psychologist for the past 13 years and currently serves as the Associate Director of the Learning Assistance Center and Disability Services office at Wake Forest University.

[1]  National Center for Education Statistics (2017). Characteristics and Outcomes of Undergraduates with Disabilities. Retrieved from: https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2018/2018432.pdf

[2] National Center for Education Statistics (2000). Percentage of graduate and first-professional students with disabilities, percentage distribution of students with disabilities according to main disability, and the percentage of students who considered themselves to have a disability, by degree program: 1999–2000. Retrieved from: https://nces.ed.gov/das/library/tables_listings/show_nedrc.asp?rt=p&tableID=239

[3] National Center for Education Statistics (2015). Total number of persons 25 to 64 years old, number with disabilities, and percentage with disabilities, by highest level of educational attainment and other selected characteristics: 2010 and 2015. Retrieved from: https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d16/tables/dt16_104.75.asp

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