What I Learned at the Disabilities Rights Center

Last October, after I took the LSAT, I started volunteering at the New Hampshire Disabilities Rights Center. I wrote about this a bit before Christmas, but now I’ve worked there for six months, and yesterday was my last day. I’m about to embark on the epic road trip of visiting law schools, and after that, my landlady and landlord from Italy are coming to visit, but I was very sad to be leaving.


I’ve had plenty of experiences where I’ve learned so much in a short time—not just in terms of knowledge but also in terms of myself—and these six months were no exception. I learned a ton, so much, it’s difficult to quantify.


I performed research—of the legal sort as well as your garden variety google searches. I learned how to find and read federal and state laws. I learned all sorts of new words, like “pursuant” and “furtherance.” And I researched and wrote a brochure on service animals and the Air Carrier Access Act as well as an article on the rights of students with traumatic brain injuries.


After Christmas, I worked with the Help America Vote Act team. We worked on publicizing the new accessible voting machines. We also wrote a pamphlet on creating an accessible campaign—through events, website design, and mailings—and contacted all the campaigns, planned monitoring visits of polling places all over the state to get feedback on the new machines and to check on basic accessibility requirements, and coordinated with the national organization RespectAbility to get people with disabilities to campaign events and to get disabilities rights issues on the table. I even got to do all investigation—by which I mean call a bunch of town clerks, ask them about absentee ballots that weren’t counted because of mismatched signatures, and hope they were honest with me. It was all super fun.


I also got to observe several stages of a case concerning denied eligibility of services, from its preparation and filed motions to the pre-hearing conference and the hearing itself. I worked on several stages of a different case myself, drafting Right to Know letters—the New Hampshire state equivalent of a FOIA request—and then I read, organized, and cataloged all the evidence we received from those requests—the discovery part of the case.


I did research for our policy director that he used in meetings with the state legislature. I reviewed specific facility policies and compared them to state laws regarding seclusion and restraint practices, and then I drafted a letter highlighting the areas where the facility was out-of-compliance. Finally, I learned about the immensely complicated and scary process of legislative history. (It became much less scary once I found my way to the state library where a lovely librarian found everything for me.) Basically, I went back into the history of a 1947 state law and read the original bills and the notes in the House and Senate journals for the original law and then several relevant amendments, all of this in order to determine the law’s intent. Legislative history is something, I’m told, that most law students don’t do until their second or third year.


So yeah, I did a ton, and I learned, and I’ll probably be starting law school in the fall with a bit of a head start. But my experience at the DRC gave me more than that. I had so much fun going to work every day, because every day I was working on something different and learning something new. I loved having lunch with all the attorneys and hearing about what they were working on and how they planned to approach it. And I will be forever grateful for all the support and advice they gave me as I went through the application process for law school, received all my acceptances, and began working my way towards a decision (a decision I still haven’t made yet, hence the epic road trip of visiting law schools I’ll be starting next week).


But it’s even more than that. I’ve said it before, and I’m sure I’ll say it again many more times, but a year ago, I was absolutely miserable—the rejections for the MFA programs I’d applied to were piling up, I’d decided I didn’t want to get a masters in comparative literature after all, I was not really enjoying teaching, and on the whole I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. Somehow, I clawed my way out of that mess of disappointment and uncertainty, and I took all the experiences I’d had and decided I wanted to go to law school. I put all my energy into studying for the LSAT and applying for law school. But at the same time, in just the last few months, everything I thought I wanted to do with my life had been turned on its ear, and right then I wasn’t sure I could trust that my decision to go to law school was really right for me. What if I hated it? What if I discovered something else I liked more? What if I was just unhappy right here and right now but I was still giving up on all my dreams? But after just a week at the DRC, I was confident, and that confidence has only grown over the last six months. Now, I am absolutely sure I am on a path to a career that matters to me and that I will enjoy every minute of. Now, I just have to pick a law school.


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