Sara Tabin

Every Monday morning during her first semester at Yale Law School, Sarah Huttenlocher LAW ’21 sat on a wooden bench amid 100 classmates in a required introductory lecture. Portraits of law school leaders loomed over the students’ heads. The students sat ready with notebooks and pens.  

The first-year lecture, like most at Yale Law, had a no laptop policy. And that was a source of discomfort for Huttenlocher, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and Tourette’s syndrome, in addition to Ehlers-Danlos syndrome.  Huttenlocher has trouble sitting still and focusing for hours in large lecture classes. When her attention begins to slip, it makes her body feel “intense,” which causes her to “tic,” or produce compulsive motions, such as nodding her head or moving her shoulders. When that happens in class, she tries to make the tic inconspicuous, but she fears other students will notice.  

“I get worried that all these people I kind of want to be friends with are looking over at me, thinking, ‘What is she doing,’” she explained.

She believes that her ability to focus would improve if she could play a simple computer game, which in past has relieved some of her hyperactive impulses in other classroom settings. But she feels awkward asking her professors for accommodations. It is tiring to have to explain her disabilities over and over again, she said. She worries that professors will question her ability to focus in court or work in a professional setting.  

Huttenlocher came straight to the Law School after graduating from the University of Michigan with degrees in psychology and English, which makes her younger than many of her peers who took time off after college. She loves writing and won an award at Michigan for her nonfiction work. Seated at a table in a coffee shop for an interview with the News, she jokes that she is one of the few law school applicants who actually enjoyed taking the LSAT. The test’s word games were fun.

Huttenlocher’s has had her disabilities for most of her life. When she was young, she felt angry and frustrated by her own limitations.

But Huttenlocher says that she has since embraced her disabilities as part of her identity — integral pieces of her existence that have helped shape the person she is today.  Her best friend from high school, who studied social work in college, also has a disability, and the two have dreamed about combining their academic specialties to start a nonprofit for disability advocacy.  Huttenlocher said she wishes society viewed disability as an identity group rather than a problem.

“When people hear that you’re disabled, they look at you like they are so sad for you,” she said. “With other groups, we accept that they should love their identity, but with disability people seem to have the idea that you should hate that part of yourself.”

Disability is an umbrella term that encompasses people with physical disabilities, mental disabilities, chronic health problems and mental illness. People with disabilities won the right to a free and equal education under the 1975 Education for All Handicapped Children Act.  The law opened the doors for those students to receive accommodations throughout their education. Then, in 1990, Congress passed the Americans With Disabilities Act, a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in all areas of public life. This law has since allowed people with disabilities the right to accommodations in school and work settings such as legal offices.   

Yale’s Resource Office of Disabilities Associate Director Erin Braselmann did not provide an exact estimate for the current number of students with disabilities at the Law School.  She told the News that the Resource Office services approximately 10 percent of students across the University.

But even after students with disabilities enter into higher education, including law school, they often have to navigate institutional hurdles.

For students like Huttenlocher, the playing field is uneven, according to Donald Stone, director of the University of Baltimore’s Mental Health Law Clinic, largely because of stigmas around disability. Students with mental illness in particular face discrimination for their disability and might be afraid to disclose it, Stone said. Professors, additionally, are not supposed to know which students receive testing accommodations for what disabilities. But they might need to know a student’s disability if a reasonable accommodation is required, such as reframing from randomly calling on the student during class. This classroom exercise could be difficult for students who have trouble focusing because of an anxiety disorder or a learning disability, according to Stone.

Huttenlocher is not the only student with a disability at the law school for whom the laptop policy is an issue.  

Jacob Bennett LAW ’19, a soft-spoken, third-year law student with cerebral palsy, needs a laptop to take notes. Although professors will grant him permission to use one if he asks, he said being the only student in class with a laptop signals that something is different and draws unwanted attention to himself. Professors should not implement rules that unduly tax students with disabilities because neurotypical students are unable to use their laptops responsibly, he said.

“I don’t think professors should run their classrooms like little personal fiefdoms,” he said. “I do think there needs to be more dialogue about what is and is not acceptable for classroom policy.”

Now finishing her second semester at the Law School, Sarah Huttenlocher is applying her writing skills to make the transition to the school easier for future students. This semester she started a weekly e-newsletter called the “Disability Digest” about disability rights, which she sends out to the Law School community as part of a campaign by Think Different: Yale Law Student Disability Coalition, an association of law students with disabilities, to make Yale Law School a more welcoming place.

“I love to write, I felt like one of the ways I would be most helpful was to write,” she explained.

Think Different is a support network that students with disabilities built in order to stay afloat in law school. After launching in the fall of 2016, its board has held weekly meetings to discuss issues its members face and to develop new ways to thrive in law school. They also have an internal Listserve, which allows its membership to connect with each other anonymously if they wish. The group currently has about 20 members. Although Yale College has a student group focused on disability, other graduate schools at Yale — such as the School of Management and the School of Medicine — do not.

What began primarily as a space for mutual support, centered on activities like group dinners, has expanded to include the more outward-facing aim of improving the resources and supports available to students with disabilities and increasing the accessibility and cultural competency of the legal profession with regards to disability.  Although the founding members were students with cognitive disabilities, it has since expanded its scope to include any students falling within the umbrella of disability, including those with physical disabilities, chronic health problems and mental illness. This year, Think Different is pushing for greater visibility at the Law School.  Its members are hoping to dismantle barriers they face in seeking accommodations and improve cultural competency surrounding disability at the school. They want their peers and professors to recognize the ways in which students with disabilities contribute to the fabric of the law school.

Founder of Think Different Theodore Rostow LAW ’17 said he sees the group’s greater public presence as a natural progression after years of students meeting, talking and understanding that they are not alone in their experiences at the law school.  He said the organization has gone from “not existing, to sitting, to standing” over the past few years.

Huttenlocher discovered the group during first-year orientation week when she spotted a booth at the law school activities fair manned by Andrea Parente LAW ’19, Think Different’s president at the time.  The two chatted about having attention difficulties in law school, and Parente reached out to Huttenlocher via email that evening to invite her to meet for coffee.

Parente has helped lead the push to change the law school.  She has attention deficit disorder and struggles to focus in classroom settings.  Parente says Think Different, which was just starting when she arrived, greatly improved her law school experience.

“Think Different has really just been crucial to me,” she explained. “The experience of being in a room with other people with disabilities was huge for me in feeling like I could do this, like I could be a lawyer with a disability and that it was good and normal and something to be proud of.”

Since traditional classroom settings are not effective for Parente’s learning style, she spends much of her time invested in hands-on legal experience. Applied learning is a more suitable fit for her disability, she explained. Parente said ADD is a certain profile of traits that come with advantage and disadvantages. Because she has trouble focusing, she is better at building catchy narratives that hold others’ attention and at relaying information in a succinct manner.

People with ADD and ADHD tend to hyperfocus when they find a task that interests them. For Parente, that task is reading and writing papers about disability law, which she says she can do for hours on end.

Parente believes that many other students and professors do not have a solid understanding of disability issues. She said when she speaks to people about disability accommodation in the legal profession, the response she often gets is worry about whether accommodating students with disabilities would compromise the interest of the client. For example, people express concern to her that students with disabilities will not receive accommodations like “an extension for a court deadline” once they enter the legal field.

“That’s not the kind of work accommodations you get, people just don’t understand that you can and should get work accommodations,” she said.  

Parente explained that work accommodations do not allow attorneys to perform below expectations, but rather give them the tools they need to best advocate for their clients.  For example, she relies on an open-door policy so she can ask questions as they come up, and if necessary, get help from a supervisor in walking her through a task which is crucial to her ability to do a good job on a case.

This year, Parente has given several presentations to clinical supervisors in collaboration with the Law School’s Clinical Student Board, which works to improve the experience of students in legal clinics.  Parente said clinics often have norms, which are patterns of typical interaction within a clinic or unspoken rules or expectations. Regardless of how inclusive these norms are, there is always a possibility that norms will not work for everyone, and might prevent a student with disabilities from doing the best work for their clients.  One of the clinics she worked in has a “do it yourself pedagogy” that encourages student independence and often discourages students from asking for help or advice, she said. As a result, she would waste weeks of work due to small problems that might have been easily resolved had she felt empowered to reach out for help. As another example, unspoken clinic social norms might prove difficult for students with disabilities with social-related impairments that make it challenging to pick up on subtle social cues, she explained.  She said she believes adjusting clinic norms to meet student needs will ultimately benefit all students and help them work more productively for their clients.

Huttenlocher, meanwhile, has focused on changing cultural norms through the Disability Digest.  She reads academic papers about disability and synthesizes them with her own experience about various topics including self-care and microaggressions, then sends her email to the Law School community.

One issue she hopes to increase understanding about is particularly personal. Tourette’s, Huttenlocher said, is widely misunderstood. She explained that Tourette’s is not a mental illness, but a neuromotor disorder.  Although portrayals of Tourette’s in the media often focus on people who shout inappropriate words, Huttenlocher said most people with Tourette’s have much more subtle tics that often go unnoticed in public.

At first, she said, she wasn’t sure if anybody would read her newsletter, but she has had classmates hear her name and come up to her to tell her they appreciate receiving her emails.

“I was really happy that people I didn’t even know were reading it,” she said, grinning.

During her second semester, Huttenlocher began to feel more at home at the Law School. Three of her four classes allowed laptops, and the fourth class was engaging enough that she was able to stay focused during during sessions.  She also managed to find some routine in navigating Yale Health and scheduling medical appointments.

In spite of the difficulties she has faced, Huttenlocher was quick to emphasize that she appreciates the education she is receiving.

“I don’t want the law school to think I’m not grateful to be here because I am,” she said. “This is a dream for me.”

The work that the group has put in this year has not gone unnoticed.

Parente was one of two students presented with a Yale Law Women Excellence Award in March for her disability advocacy.  Parente said she was “completely confused” when she heard she had won since she never expected to be given an award for her work.

Several students at the Law School said Sarah Huttenlocher’s Disability Digest emails have helped them consider disability issues that they never knew about before.

Karen Anderson LAW ’21, who is not a member of Think Different, praised the group for “call[ing] [other] students in” by educating them on disability rights rather than “calling them out” for what they do not know.

“We all want to support our fellow students,” she said. “… Sometimes we need help to know how to do that better.”

Members of Think Different were also invited to provide input for a Law School working group tasked with addressing a range of issues affecting the school.

Deputy Dean of the Law School Douglas Kysar said faculty who have banned laptops in classes chose to do so to try to promote a more active and engaged learning environment in classrooms.

“I think when those customs were developed, they were not developed with the question of learning disabilities in mind,” he said. “I think it’s fair to say the students who have spoken out this year … have made a big impact on faculty. I know from speaking to several of my colleagues that people are reconsidering their approach.”

Kysar added that he believes the students in Think Different “deserve a great deal of credit and respect” for their work.

For now, Think Different members say they will keep working to improve resources and reduce stigmas for students with disabilities.

Madison Needham LAW ’21 will help lead the group next fall after Parente has graduated from the school. She said professors often direct requests for disability accommodations to the Resource Office on Disabilities, which is overburdened and unable to respond to some of the unique needs of law school students.  Needham said students who are granted accommodations for tests, for example, are sometimes unable to get them for papers.

The Resource Office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Law School spokesperson Jan Conroy said that per University policy, accommodations for students with disabilities are made on an individual basis through Yale’s centralized Resource Office on Disabilities and are not arranged by the Law School.  She added that Law School officials also meet with students and work with them as they seek accommodation assistance and as they pursue important advocacy efforts to ensure that the process of disability accommodations is efficient and comprehensive enough to meet their needs.

Another concern of the group is that the Law School does not have any faculty member who specializes in disability law.  This has left students who are interested in disability rights, like Bennett, Parente and Huttenlocher, without mentors.

Beyond the Law School, the stigmatization of disability is also an issue in the broader legal field.

Elyn Saks, a professor at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law, underwent a schizophrenic breakdown while she was a student at the Law School 32 years ago.  She is now a leading scholar on mental health law. She said that even before the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Law School was “good to her” and allowed her to return to finish her law degree after her condition stabilized.

Saks now advises law students at USC about disability and employment.  One important question is whether students should disclose mental health problems and disabilities to their employers.  Saks said that disclosure is necessary to seek accommodation for work challenges, but that the situation is a “two-way sword” since disclosure can result in professional consequences.  Even though discriminating against people with disabilities is illegal, she said it is possible employers will find other reasons not to promote people with disabilities. When it comes to mental health issues in particular, she tries to help students see both sides of the disclosure question.

“I think unless you have to self-disclose, you probably shouldn’t,” she said.  “That’s kind of sad, but I think that’s the reality today.”

Think Different’s work at Yale Law School is a step in challenging preconceptions about disability in the legal field.  

Huttenlocher had another source of excitement this past semester — her kitten, Mathilda.  The long-haired tortoiseshell has cerebellar hypoplasia which does not cause her pain but gives her a funny walk, tripping over her own feet as she runs around Huttenlocher’s apartment chasing after a toy attached to string.  Huttenlocher learned about Mathilda on the internet and took an Uber 45 minutes in March to the kitten, which had gone unwanted at a shelter long after her siblings were adopted because of her disability.

“I think she’s perfect, I wouldn’t want her to walk normal because then she wouldn’t be my little bird,” Huttenlocher explained as she watched the kitten play.  

She joked that the kitten might set up a good teaching moment for how people with disabilities want to be seen. “The woman at the shelter….said they wanted someone to adopt her who would love her for her disability and not in spite of it.”