September 22nd, 2016

Going To School For Activism

It’s that time of year again. Young disability rights activists are getting in their applications to various programs, law school, grad school, maybe other professional programs. They’re getting ready to undergo degree programs and try to gain credentials that they hope will further their activism. If you are part of this year’s cohort of up-and-coming leaders taking on the challenge of furthering your education, you have my sincere respect. I think it’s safe to say that your community is very proud of you. Your courage, work ethic, and ambition to serve others make you valuable to the cause of disability justice. However, your plan has its risks. Because I want to see things go well for you, I hope you will think carefully about whether you go through with it or not, even if you already have some time and money invested. Whatever your sunk cost is now is less than the years and dollars a degree will cost you. I would never tell you not to go. I’m in my third year of law school with no regrets.


a picture of a library table covered with laptop, books, and other accouterments of my education


However, I would tell you not to go this coming academic year unless it’s really right for you. If you go, I want you to come down to the end of your degree program with no regrets, too, so I’m sharing a checklist of sorts, the things I think it was helpful for me to consider. If you can think of things I’ve forgotten, I encourage you to add them to the comments. Let’s make this the best resource we can.

First, you have to think about disability-related considerations. Did your grades suffer from a lack of proper accommodations and supports when you were an undergraduate? Coupled with any subsequent or extracurricular experience, what does that mean for your options? Can you still get into a program that will give you good prospects after you finish? Once you get to school, will you run into discrimination in your program? If you do, how free will you be to speak out about it? Do you think you can live with whatever amount of recourse you will have for the number of years it takes? Are you willing to disclose at the application phase? Especially if there are plenty of options for where you could get your degree, you might want to do what I did: throw out your disability in a personal statement to stumble over any tripwires of unlawful discrimination long before you turn down other offers of admission and hand over tuition money. Are there supports without which you can’t complete your degree? If so, how sure can you be that you’re going to get those? Even if you never encounter discrimination, being the only one is lonely. You could be the first and only, which may be even worse and come with distinct pressures to represent people like you. Do you have the right temperament to take on those challenges? Is this a good time in your life for you to do that?

How will your disability affect your opportunities after graduation? Are you more limited in the jobs you can take than most people entering your field? Is stigma a big problem in the field you intend to go into? If you don’t know, part of the research you need to do before you take on anything as life-altering as a new degree program is trying to find this out. If you do your research but can’t find an openly disabled person in the field you intend to go into who is willing to respond to polite overtures from you with frank advice and opinions, that silence should be informative. In school or, especially, afterward, will your ties to some part of the disability community or aspects of its culture create conflicts or problems for you? Will those things limit the opportunities you can take if you’re not willing to distance yourself from your people?

You also have to think about the factors that all students, not just students with disabilities, have to consider. You may not have gotten the best ground in that growing up because a lot of the things you have to think about relate to financial literacy. Low expectations often mean that people with disabilities aren’t taught even the pitifully little about money that most Americans know. Find out what your program will cost, not what it costs everyone, but what it will cost you given your lifestyle, any extracurricular responsibilities like other people you financially support, and needs related to your disability that might not be factored into the COA. Look into the cost of living in the various places where you might go to school. If you’re in that position, go online. How likely is it that the schools to which you’re applying will give a person coming in with a background like yours  a scholarship? Make it your mission to find every outside scholarship for which you’re eligible. If gifts from friends or relatives who won’t try to use money to control you are on offer, never forget that you had help. If you’re ever in a position to do so, pay it forward by helping someone else. If all of that might not cover everything, read up on what different kinds of loans actually cost. Interest rates are important.

That due diligence can give you a rough estimate of what your degree will cost. It won’t come out exactly according to plan. You will be nailed with financial surprises both large and painful. You’ll get windfalls and opportunities you couldn’t have foreseen at the start. All you really need now, though, is the ballpark so that you can do some simple math. Look at what you’re probably going to borrow, give or take a few thousand dollars. Look at what you’re likely to make in your intended field. Try to get geographically specific, and figure out how far your wages or salary will go. How much would you need to make to have a lifestyle you would find livable, pay your debts, and save for retirement? How likely are you to find a job? How likely is it that the job will pay enough? Don’t worry too much about the best case scenario. Statistically speaking, it probably won’t happen to you. Judge your chances of a good outcome by the middle of the bell curve. Don’t get too hung up on it, but take at least a passing glance at the worst case scenario. Could you live with it if things go badly?

Then, there are the non-financial concerns that apply to everyone. What are your responsibilities now? Are you willing and able to neglect them a bit? If you’re going to stack many course hours on top of demands like childcare, eldercare, or a job you have to do to make your education financially feasible, are you up to the challenge? How flexible are the programs that interest you most? What are the chances that you will have to move, either for school, for a job after you graduate, or both? Are you willing and able to end up a long way from home? How well do you handle stress, deadlines, and competing demands? Can you deal with diversity of opinion? How healthy is your field overall? Are people in it happy there, or do they all seem to be trying to get out? If the picture is mixed, and it probably is, look for patterns. Are you more like the happy or the unhappy people?

Whether this calculus gives you a clear answer or leaves you in a gray area, don’t go it alone. The stakes are too high. You matter too much. Have people you trust (ideally multiple and with varying perspectives) check your math, your assessment of yourself, and your assessment of your circumstances. Demand that they speak frankly with you. Promise you’ll listen respectfully and carefully consider what you hear. You don’t have to take any advice you receive, but you should think hard about what people you respect who have your interests at heart have to say about your plans.

When you’re finished with this preliminary research, you should have a clearer idea of whether going forward or looking at other options is your best bet. If most indicators suggest that more school is the right choice for you, I wish you the very best of luck on your new adventure. If a bad outcome seems likely, there is no shame in reevaluating your initial decision. Enough disabled people are struggling. Don’t try to rescue a drowning person by getting pulled under, yourself. If deposits or what you spent on a standardized test are lost, that’s cheaper than a graduate or professional degree that could cost more than a decent house in many communities. It’s better than losing time. Debt can be paid off if your income is high enough, but time you spend will never come back. If going through the process of carefully weighing your options seems like too much work, you should probably rethink your decision. It’s nothing compared to what you’re thinking of doing.

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