Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Dalhousie University to Offer New Scholarship for Students with Disabilities

In an effort to make law school more inclusive, a new scholarship for students with disabilities has been established at Dalhousie University’s Schulich School of Law.

The scholarship was made possible by ReachAbility, a local not-for-profit organization that aims to create more inclusive communities. The scholarship will be awarded to a different incoming first-year student each year, starting this fall. Students must demonstrate academic excellence, financial need, and self-identify as having a disability, which can be physical, mental, cognitive, or sensory.

ReachAbility offered to donate $10,000 annually for the next four years. The law school will add another $5,000 in the first year and plans to fundraise for the remaining years.

With tuition costing slightly less than $15,000 per year, Diane Chisholm, a development officer at the law school, says the scholarship will really make a difference in the chosen students’ lives.

“You want to have individuals have accessibility regardless of the barriers. We don’t want cost to be a barrier and for some students with disabilities cost is a challenge, and so if it’s targeted at those students then the playing field is a little bit more level,” she says.

“If someone has disabilities, one can imagine that they would have other challenges and law school is very competitive,” she adds.

Tova Sherman, founder of reachAbility and a disability awareness trainer, says not only will the scholarship benefit students and the law school, it will also benefit the legal community by raising awareness about disabilities and, in effect, removing the stigma that exists in society — specifically in the legal profession.

“The legal community gains because those lawyers are going to have experience working with someone with a disability and realizing all those preconceived notions . . . [are] not the whole story,” says Sherman.

“We need to educate the legal community and this is one of the ways,” she adds.

Sherman has conducted disability awareness training at law schools, law firms, and the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society through Independent Disability Education Associates.

“I’ve seen that there is a lack of awareness, just like anywhere else,” she says.

Sherman refers to a survey that reachAbility conducted of its legal referral service as an example of the stigma that still exists. Out of approximately 350 volunteer lawyers, only three identified as having a disability, and those were the ones with a physical disability.

“For persons with disabilities, I don’t think that anyone ever really thought about the importance of equalizing the playing field because they always perceive accommodation as ‘special,’” she says.

Sherman says it’s not about being “special,” it’s about people with disabilities having the same accessibility as others, and society starting to view it that way.

“We have attitudinal and architectural barriers. If we remove all the architectural barriers that does not mean we’re OK. But if we remove the attitudinal barriers, everything falls into place,” she says.
Chisholm says the scholarship also presents more opportunities for people with disabilities.

“By offering a scholarship, you’re offering the potential for individuals with disabilities who may not have considered [law school]. So it’s not only just the actual money, but it’s actually giving those with disabilities the idea that this is something [they] can aim for,” she says.