DRLC Students Learn From the Client Community

The Disability Rights Law Clinic (DRLC) recently partnered with two local advocacy groups to pilot a new simulation model for clinic students to learn skills for interviewing clients who have intellectual disabilities. Unlike prior exercises in which DRLC students took turns role-playing as clients and attorneys, in this new model, our volunteer actors were individuals with intellectual disabilities.

Simulation exercises are an opportunity for students to experience and practice lawyering skills such as interviewing and counseling in a supported environment. Interviewing can be a difficult skill to master in any setting, but it presents particular challenges when the client has an intellectual disability. As a pedagogical matter, we wanted our students to understand and develop their interviewing techniques and skills in the context of engaging individuals similarly situated to our clients.

We assigned students to one of two simulated situations as we had previously done: one focused on special education and the other on advocacy on behalf of a person with an intellectual disability. Self-advocates from Project Action, a coalition of adults with intellectual disabilities, and Advocates for Justice and Education, comprised of parents and youth organizers focused on special education outreach and support, received scripts related to the simulation.  Students received a brief description of an initial phone intake meeting and had to prepare for a first interview with their client. DRLC Dean’s Fellows and our administrative team worked with the community advocates to review the material in advance, answer any questions they may have, and provide opportunities to practice the material, to the extent the advocates wished to do so.

The community advocates reported that they enjoyed the opportunity to work with law students on issues they experience daily.  Many spent time with our students after the simulations ended to discuss their impressions and how similar the simulation fact patterns were (or in some cases, were not) to their lives.  Among other things, students felt they were able to enter “role” with greater ease because they could actually engage with persons who experience these issues in real life. We plan to review the process and support continued community partnerships, and we hope to continue this model in the coming years.