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Achieving Through Adversity

A disability is not always a disadvantage

I have read many articles about people succeeding despite their disabilities, but I believe people can succeed because of their disabilities. 

The adversity I faced navigating academic and professional challenges as a person with a disability paved the way for the satisfying life I enjoy now. Here I sit, a law clerk for a federal judge preparing to begin private practice at a patent litigation firm, living with a cat in my own apartment and supported by friends and family. The bumps in the road made me a tougher, smarter person and helped me sharpen the skills I use every day as an attorney. 

I was diagnosed with Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease (CMT) when I began having difficulty walking at age 5. My diagnosis was challenging for my entire family. My mom had to learn how to be my advocate, fighting to ensure I had equal access to academic opportunities throughout my education. I was unaware of how much effort this took until I went to college and had to advocate for myself.

I moved three hours from home to attend the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. I was living on my own for the first time and was in charge of my education, disability accommodations, managing my personal care attendants and doing my own laundry. Though overwhelming at times, each challenge led to an important self-development. 

I majored in mechanical engineering. Sometimes my physical limitations prevented me from performing aspects of my engineering coursework, such as assembling machines. I worked together with professors and my university’s disability services office to ensure I had the necessary accommodations to participate in the full engineering coursework and college experience. Sometimes this meant I contributed to my team by acting in leadership or communicator roles. I wrote lab reports and presentations, fostering my passion for communication. 

Though college provided an opportunity to discover my passions and sharpen my skills, I encountered challenges from faculty who had seemingly never met a student in a wheelchair before. The grossest example of this was a lab instructor who demanded a meeting with disability services and me when he found out I would be in his class. He railed against my inclusion, and I will never forget when he stated, “No one told me the girl in the wheelchair would be in my class!” 

My mother told me that she came up against similar complaints from my high school teachers. Now it was my turn to put my advocacy skills to use. Spoiler alert: I took his lab with my usual accommodations, and in the end I passed. Though I can’t say he ever appreciated my value as a student, I eventually graduated college magna cum laude, with my engineering degree. 

I’m loathe to give this instructor who didn’t want me in his class any credit, but he certainly helped me sharpen my skills as an advocate, which helped me make the change from engineering to law. Indeed, I enjoyed the advocacy and communications skills I developed in college so much that I decided to seek out a career as a patent attorney, so I could combine my love for words with my technical expertise. After graduating from college, I pursued a law degree at the University of Minnesota.

Law school presented new challenges, but by this time, I embraced challenges. The lectures were unlike anything I had experienced. Students must take extensive notes while professors lecture for entire class periods. Handwriting and typing are difficult for me. I normally use voice recognition software, but this tool wasn’t available during law school lectures. Fortunately, over the course of my life and especially during law school, I developed listening skills such that I can often recall a conversation word for word. These listening skills were crucial to ensuring my success in school and work.  

Though I can’t predict the future, I know I will continue to face adversity, whether it be lack of affordable housing, lack of physical access, transportation difficulties or health insurance issues.

Of course, my disability is not the only challenge I face. Everyone experiences challenges and disappointments throughout life. And I have learned much about overcoming adversity by listening to the struggles of people from many different backgrounds. 

For example, many female attorneys face insidious discrimination at the beginning of their careers. Some attorneys have reported going to court and being mistaken for the court reporter or a non-attorney. Before opposing counsel realized they were the attorneys, these women were able to see their opponent with his guard down and gain an advantage. It’s certainly unfair that women continue to experience discrimination in the workplace, but in the meantime, we can try to use these situations to our advantage. 

We should continue to work at a societal level to implement changes that will create a more equal world.  Meanwhile, I believe that an important part of meeting today’s challenges is seeing the positives in negative situations.

So please don’t say that I’ve accomplished these things despite my disability. It is because of my disability and the adversity I have experienced that I am where I sit today.

Ann Motl, 26, has CMT and is currently a judicial law clerk. She will practice as a patent litigation attorney beginning in fall 2017. She lives with her cat, Pixie, in Minnesota.

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