In our February blog post we hear from Maria Aurora Nunez. In this blog piece, Maria explores advocacy through the lens of strength, courage and determination. Reflecting on real life experiences, Maria provides practical tips and strategies for achieving your own advocacy goals.
Feeling discouraged one day, I asked my professor, “Can the law make a difference?”
Hello beautiful reader! ¡Hola! Bonjour! Привет! My name is Maria. I am an artist – I oil paint, write songs and poetry. I am a “dreamer” and an “idealist.” I am also an advocate. Coming from a family of political refugees from Chile, I have had an interest in supporting equity and a diversity of causes since I was a child. My law degree and personal experience have taught me that advocating can be difficult. The important thing is to not give up and to keep following your goals!
For the longest time, I felt embarrassed, but now I don’t care, to say that I required disability accommodations in school. Obtaining these accommodations proved to be a barrier to my participation in school. For example, despite a history of accommodations and supporting documentation, my request for accommodations for the law school admission test (LSAT) was denied by the American Law School Admission Council (LSAC), which administers the LSAT in Canada. I didn’t think that my request was treated in a procedurally or substantively just manner, so I had to be an advocate for myself and, in so doing, advocated for disability rights generally. I went through an “appeal process” unsuccessfully, was told that there was not¬hing further that I could do, and was advised to consider alternate career options. Instead, I explored my legal rights. I spoke with a human rights lawyer, spent months building my case, identifying problems, anticipating counter positions, and meticulously reviewing documents. Sometimes, I wanted to give up and questioned the point of pursuing law school. After all, if applying was so burdensome, what does that say about inclusion in the profession generally? Nevertheless, I made it to law school!
I pursued law school in the first place because I wanted to help people. I didn’t wait to graduate to get started. In my first year, I founded the Queen’s Disability and Mental Health Law Club, which aimed to reduce stigma associated with disability and mental health issues. I received a Women’s Law Association of Ontario/Aird & Berlis LLP Advocacy Award and the club received a professional excellence award from the Law Students’ Society. Most importantly, the club was making a difference. Students, professors, and professionals, even in faculties outside of law, connected to share their experiences of dealing with disability, mental health issues and stigma.
In my second year, as club chair, I was deterred from starting a scholarship to support prospective law students with disabilities. Even though the club generally received support, it sometimes experienced opposition behind the scenes. However, I believe that when one door closes, another opens. Feeling defeated one day, I asked my professor, “can the law really make a difference?” After a characteristic lawyer answer of “it depends,” she offered encouraging words and urged me to focus on the positive and what I was good at: writing. I wrote a paper that was accepted at the Canadian Law Student Conference (I could not go until the following year because of issues getting accommodations that year), and I took on an independent study project about the LSAT. Through facts and statistics, I made a strong case that law schools in Canada could be more accessible by re-evaluating their admissions processes. Staff at the Ontario Human Rights Commission read my paper and, ultimately, a condensed version was published in the Canadian Legal Education Annual Review.
In 2014, LSAC agreed to pay $ 7.73 million in penalties and damages to compensate 6,000 individuals who applied for disability accommodations. LSAC has since significantly changed its accommodation request processes. These changes resulted after the United States Justice Department intervened in a lawsuit, alleging widespread and systemic deficiencies in the way LSAC processes requests by people with disabilities for testing accommodations. So, can the law make a difference? Yes. Can YOU make a difference? Yes!
Here are a few recommendations that may help you in achieving your advocacy goals:
- Be curious and follow your intuition. Coming from a family of artists, I am very curious. In school, I was once told to stop questioning things, to just learn the law and apply it. However, blindly following traditions and rules without question isn’t how my mind works. If something does not feel right, speak up. Question the status quo.
- Find like-minded people. If you are passionate about something, someone out there is passionate about it too. Keep networking and searching until you find them.
- Share your experience. As an equity seeker, you have useful insight into how systems operate in practice and how things can be improved in the future. Only by sharing your experience may you find that others have similar experiences.
- Take risks and step out of your comfort zone. Whether you speak to a professor or a judge, voice a concern, or propose a new initiative, outcomes are often uncertain. However, we mostly regret the risks that we didn’t take.
- Ask for help. Finding long-lasting supports can make the passing discomfort of asking for help worth it. (My favourite place at Queen’s is the Ban Righ Centre — a little home away from home).
- Be open to feedback from others. There’s no one of us that has all the answers. We can learn from one another to collaborate.
- Stay positive. It takes courage, imagination, time, and energy to identify a concern, think of ways to make things better, and try to make change. Be proud of each accomplishment. Be optimistic about how far you have come and how much further you can go! You never know what positive changes your efforts may create.
- Be creative. Strive for win-win ways to improve systems. “That’s just how things are” is only true until someone like you changes it.
- Do not take it personally. Change often makes people uncomfortable and reactive. Sometimes, politics, ego or differing perspectives can get in the way of fixing issues that could otherwise be easy to fix. If you encounter this resistance, try to not take it personally.
- Be patient. Change and results rarely happen overnight.
- Be persistent. Try, again and again and again. If you face a barrier, re-route. Even if someone tells you that there is nothing more that you can do, respectfully take their advice with a grain of salt. Maybe you can create a new option.
- Play fair. Let your emotion and passion motivate your work, but always treat others, even people on seemingly opposing sides, with respect, dignity, kindness, and courtesy.
- Focus on your strengths. You could be an excellent advocate, just as you are. My favourite example of this is David Boies. Despite having dyslexia and self-describing as a slow reader, he is one of the top lawyers in the United States. He was lead counsel for Vice-President Al Gore (1998-2000), was named “one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World” by Time Magazine (2010), and “Litigator of the Year” by Who’s Who Legal (an unprecedented seven times).
- Do not get complacent. Equitable policies are only as good as they are followed in practice. Continuously examine how systems around you operate.
- Believe in yourself. Respectfully listen to advice but make your own decision. I was encouraged to not attend law school because I learn in a ‘different’ way. In law school, when I had some struggles, I was ‘kindly’ encouraged to leave the program at one point and questioned constantly by people about why I was studying law. I questioned myself many steps along the way, why I cared so much about certain things and whether it was a waste of resources to put myself through equity battles. In hindsight, I am glad that I ignored naysayers, some of whom may have even had my best interests at heart. If you believe that you can do something, and people tell you that you can’t, then give yourself the satisfaction of proving them wrong by not giving up.
More work needs to be done to protect equity rights, even in our modern day, and not only for persons with disabilities, but for all equity-seeking groups. Whatever your advocacy goal, I do believe that YOU can make a difference and be a good advocate. Although things may not always run smoothly, any reward will be that much more satisfying, when you can tell yourself that you followed your dreams by being unstoppable. Today is your day to start not stopping. Thank you for reading this! Gracias. Merci. Спасибо.