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Until she was 14, law student Rebecca Williford was a competitive swimmer and regularly lifted weights. But one morning, she woke up feeling sick and depleted. In the coming years, Williford’s fatigue didn’t go away, and she started having trouble walking. It took several years of doctor visits and tests to identify that she had Dysautonomia, a chronic neurological and cardiovascular disorder that affects, at different times, her blood pressure, heart rate, vision and digestion. By 17, Williford was relying on a wheelchair. “For the first time, I was a part of the disability community, and I realized the tremendous need for advocacy on behalf of them — for health care, for employment, for fathers who are breadwinners trying to figure out what they would do if they couldn’t return to their job.” Now, she added, “I am on a path that I would not be on if I had not become a person with a disability.” This summer, the 27-year-old University of North Carolina School of Law student is part of an unusual class of interns working at Berkeley, Calif.’s Disability Rights Advocates, a 10-lawyer advocacy group that specializes in class action litigation on behalf of people with disabilities. Typically, the summer group might include one intern with a disability, out of three or five, DRA development director Patricia Kirkpatrick said. But all three of this summer’s interns have lived with a significant disability, an experience they say has helped shape their career aspirations and steered them toward disability rights advocacy. UCLA School of Law student Stephanie Enyart has been legally blind since age 15, and UC Berkeley School of Law student Joshua Davidson became a quadriplegic after suffering a severe spinal cord injury 10 years ago. Williford and Davidson are entering their last year of law school, and Enyart has one more semester. There are pluses to training soon-to-be lawyers who have these kinds of experiences, said DRA Executive Director Laurence Paradis. “It’s a great advantage when the attorneys we hire have not only commitment but personal experience — it means they will stick with the law and make real changes in the world.” Paradis, who travels the country for recruits, said that it’s not easy to find students with significant disabilities at top-level law schools who have made it through the second year and who want to work in public interest law. “They face so many barriers in college and law school,” he said. “It’s a long road for students with significant disabilities.” SECOND THOUGHTS Enyart said she thought about dropping out of law school a number of times. She used to have 20/20 vision. But two recessive genes combined to give her Stargardt’s disease, a form of retinal degeneration that has reduced her field of vision over the years. She said that she sees shapes and colors but cannot make out details on faces or text on a page. Like Williford, Enyart remembers the LSATs as a particularly trying experience. Not allowed to use the software she was accustomed to, which reads text aloud, Enyart said, she had to sit with an untrained person assigned to read to her. At one point, she said, her reader fell asleep. “He was snoring.” Reading in law school was another challenge. Some semesters, she got the electronic versions of textbooks weeks late. “The legal publishers have been very challenging to work with,” she said. Disillusioned after her first year and still struggling for accommodation, Enyart said her grades also did not represent her abilities. She was nearly ready to call it quits. She put out calls to two mentors. “Both these people told me the same thing: Don’t hold on to law school so tightly and focus on the problems and experiences in my path,” she recalled. “Do something to reconnect with the reason that you went to law school.” Already heavily involved in the Disability Law Society, Enyart signed on to help create the National Association of Law Students With Disabilities, a coalition of law students dedicated to disability advocacy and support for law students with disabilities, where she is president. “Interestingly, as I was focusing energy on all this work, my grades skyrocketed.” THANKING A LAWYER UC Berkeley’s Davidson has already been on the receiving end of disability rights work. He said he probably owes his current self-reliance to a disability rights attorney who helped ensure that the hospital where Davidson did his rehab continued to provide treatment under his medical insurance. Without that mediation process, Davidson said, “it’s pretty likely that I would’ve ended up in a nursing facility.” Instead, he’s living independently despite partial paralysis below the shoulders — in part with the help of Unique, a 7-year-old golden retriever-yellow Labrador mix who can pick things up and open doors. DRA, where Davidson is working on cases centered on access to public transportation and shopping areas, gives him a chance to explore disability law through plaintiff-side class actions. “Hopefully, what I’ll get from [DRA] is an insight into whether this area of disability law appeals to me,” he said. He noted there are other ways to contribute to disability law, like handling individual cases or combining litigation with policy work at an organization like the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund. Williford, a full-time student on a four-year plan at Chapel Hill, said she knew of no other place that handles disability rights affect litigation. As an intern, she said, she helps with both state and federal cases, doing legal research, writing motions and drafting testimony. She plans to waste no time after graduation. “I want to do disability rights work right out of the starting gates,” she said. Like Enyart, she would love to land a public interest fellowship in disability rights impact litigation. “I could spend the rest of my life working in it, and all the work still wouldn’t be done.”

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