A Career on Her Own Terms: Attorney with Special Needs Beats the Odds
The unemployment rate among individuals with disabilities is alarmingly high, and their job search can be frustrating. But a fellow attorney, Amanda Carter, knew what she wanted and went for it.
“I have cerebral palsy and require full-time attendants, who are paid for by the State of Texas,” she explains. “I use a power wheelchair and can’t drive. But I knew early on that I wanted to be an attorney, that it was a career I could physically keep up with but would be both intellectually and emotionally challenging.” In 2018, she was hired by Matthew Harris Law, of Lubbock, Texas.
Amanda was in special education throughout elementary and high school. “My IEPs centered on the need for physical assistance during the school day, and I always attended general education classes. I required extra time for tests and to be able to dictate answers to a computer.”
I asked her how she felt about the recent college admissions scandal, involving students who falsely claimed to have disabilities in order to get test accommodations. “It infuriates me,” she answers. “It’s because of people abusing the system that so much documentation is required. Over the years, I’ve organized a binder—which I continue to maintain—with all my high school IEPs, every doctor’s letter attesting to my disability and information about past accommodations. I shouldn’t have to repeatedly go through the same drill every time I need something based on my disability. It’s burdensome and unfair.”
As Amanda began contemplating college, she made a friend who greatly influenced her future. “At Camp Smiles, run by Easter Seals of Greater Houston, I met Kyle, who also has cerebral palsy and is a few years older. He attended Texas A&M University, and he gave me many tips on how to navigate college, live in a dorm and generally deal with life’s challenges. I think his experience reassured my parents, too.”
Amanda went on to earn a scholarship to the University of the Incarnate Word, in San Antonio, where she lived in an on-campus dorm, joined a sorority, and was elected president of the Pre-Law Society. She graduated in three years with a B.A. in psychology.
“I have very specific accessibility needs,” she explains, “so housing played a big part in my choice of law school.” She found what she needed in an on-campus apartment near Texas Tech Law School, which had awarded her a second academic scholarship. Although she was able to live independently, her family moved from San Antonio to Lubbock to be nearby as an “emergency backup team.”
Amanda recognized the value of networking. Her former special needs attorney, now retired, connected her with a professor who eventually taught her property and estate planning course at Texas Tech. He, in turn, introduced her to Matthew Harris, who hired her as a law intern between semesters. She also put in time as a legal research assistant for the School of Law before receiving a Doctor of Jurisprudence in 2018.
“After law school, I interviewed with a number of firms to see what was out there, and the experience was mixed,” she admits. “One interviewer kept returning to the topic of ‘logistics.’ I explained that I’d always been able to figure out how to get things done and that the important thing was to be flexible—to give me an opportunity to show them what I could do. But they were clearly hung up on the details.”
Matthew Harris Law, where she’d interned, soon welcomed her full-time. “Small accommodations can mean a lot,” she says. “It probably cost them $20 to extend my desk with a 2X4 so that I could roll my wheelchair under it. And we tweaked some of the inhouse processes—nothing complicated.”
“We also had to figure out a compensation plan that wouldn’t disqualify me for public benefits. I get my salary on a specific date each month and, to stay within income limits, we’ve arranged for alternative methods of compensation, such as semi-regular firm lunches. I also have an ABLE account, where I deposit part of my pay in order to remain within the government’s asset guidelines.”
The result is that Amanda is enabled to fully contribute to the firm’s practice, focusing on family law and drafting briefs for cases on appeal. “I enjoy helping families with special needs understand what government benefits they’re entitled to, and I’m encouraging the firm to become more involved in special needs planning. In fact, I developed a document for them on how to open an SNT.”
Advice for Job Seekers
“Finding the right employer can be difficult for someone with disabilities. Frankly, if they aren’t able to see the bigger picture and the value of making reasonable accommodations, you don’t need to work there. It’s important for you to be happy. It’s odd. New clients have yet to be taken aback when they first meet me, but other lawyers have been. More than once, I’ve been asked, ‘Are you the attorney?’
“I wish I had more role models my age like Kyle, and I’d be happy to speak with or email others who’d like to learn more about my experience or ask questions about their own job search.” Individuals wishing to contact Amanda should indicate their interest in the comment section of this blog post.
“I recognize that I’ve benefited from a wonderfully supportive family and certain financial advantages. But my biggest piece of advice is to follow your dreams. Do your best to build the career you want, and don’t focus on the possibility of failure. You just might end up being really happy.”Posted: May 21st, 2019 | 3 Comments »