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Handling Learning Disabilities in Law School

Haben Girma, the first deaf-blind student to graduate from Harvard Law School, received international acclaim when she began her career in the law.

President Barack Obama greeted her at the White House, where she gave the opening address for the 25th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. She has devoted her career to inspiring people through public speaking and non-litigation advocacy, and now she's writing a memoir about her experiences.

So how did she do it, literally? How did she make it through law school with her particular disabilities?

Courage and the Law

From all accounts, Girma is fearless. She surfs, dances salsa, and travels around the world. It's that personality trait that also pushed her to succeed in law school.

But it was the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act that enabled her to do it. Under these laws, she received reasonable accommodations to help her learn.

Any student with a diagnosed learning disability, including dyslexia, attention deficit disorder, and executive functioning disability, may be eligible for accommodations. These may include:

  • extended time for exams or written assignments
  • use of a computer or private room during examinations
  • designated note-taker or option to record lectures

Asking for Accommodations

Prospective law students should look for disability services before starting law school because programs are different. Cornell University's Law School, for example, has a disability center that serves all students -- not just law students.

Any program will require formal, written requests for accommodations. They should include a medical diagnosis and a record of previous accommodations.

It is not necessary to disclose a learning disability in a law school application, unless it is part of your story to show why you want to go to law school. In Girma's case, it was certainly part of her story.

It was an extraordinary story, in part because she graduated magna cum laude from college. But she has also set herself apart by her determination, and even created a device to help her communicate.

She connected a braille device to a keyboard, which allows her to have real-time conversations with people. They type on the keyboard; she reads their words in braille; then she talks to them.

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