Disability Law is a growing area of practice that can include elements of education law (especially special education law), civil rights/anti-discrimination law (in a broad range of areas including employment, housing transportation and institutionalization), health law, family law, public benefits law (especially Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income (SSI)), and estate planning (especially guardianship and its alternatives). It is a technically complex area of law that also can be very rewarding personally and professionally, especially because so many people with disabilities lack adequate (or any) legal representation. There also is an important role for well-trained lawyers to represent in a knowledgeable and responsible fashion government institutions and private entities that come into contact with people with disabilities.
Courses in administrative law and those that emphasize close statutory and regulatory analysis are critical for this practice given the complexity of statutes such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the Fair Housing Act Amendments of 1988 (FHAA), and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, not to mention the Social Security Act, Medicaid and, now, the Affordable Care Act. With the adoption of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) (and its possible ratification by the US), international human rights courses are increasingly relevant to a disability law practice. Because disability law is still a young discipline, many basic legal questions in the field remain unresolved, and courses in advanced constitutional law and broad “perspectives” courses can be useful as well. Although many disability law cases arise in state courts, the large number of federal statutes in this area make advanced civil procedure, remedies and federal courts useful courses to take.
Students interested in one or more aspects of disability law have several (and an increasing number) of disability-focused courses from which to choose, but it is important to be aware of courses with a broader focus (such as employment discrimination or civil rights and remedies) that cover disability law issues in several classes. These classes are helpful in that they contextualize disability rights issues within a wider range of civil rights concerns.
In addition to courses in the WCL catalogue, students should be aware that Washington, DC is the home of a number of local and national public interest organizations and government agencies that focus on some aspect of disability law and that can serve as excellent externship placements. The externship office keeps ongoing lists of such organizations that have had WCL externs.
Finally, writing and researching about disability-law topics can be an important way to get feedback on one’s substantive knowledge in the field as well as on one’s writing skills. In addition to the seminars listed below and independent studies, students should consider writing law review comments or notes on disability-related topics. Indeed, in whatever setting a student is doing academic writing, reaching out to lawyers in the disability field regarding “hot topics” may not only generate interesting topic ideas but also provide opportunities for job networking (especially if the student offers to share the final paper with the lawyer(s) with whom the student consults).