During the Fall 2022 semester, I had the opportunity to prepare with my team and observe my first law school Mock Trial competition, the Hofstra Legal-Medical Mock Trial Competition. The competition was held at the Nassau County Courthouse in Long Island from October 21st to 23rd. It was a great experience to be there and witness how the competition worked. However, in being familiar with accommodations for law students and attorneys with disabilities, as well as the means by which they are or can be provided, I noticed that competitions seem to be indifferent to accessibility. Competitions are also less accommodating than a real trial. This is likely the case for a few reasons.
First, cases that come to trial and are heard by a sitting judge in a state or district court are required to make reasonable accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (“ADA”). Under Title II of the ADA, a qualified individual with a disability cannot be denied by a public entity in participation in any of its services, programs, or activities.  Therefore, a court, as a public entity, must ensure that anyone with a disability has equal access to its functions. This can mean a myriad of different things for advocates, whether a law student in practice or a lawyer in trial, as all disabilities differ.
Second, law students or new lawyers who want to practice litigation or participate in an advocacy program are reluctant to disclose their disability. As a result, they do not receive the accommodations they need, which ultimately makes a trial or competition more difficult for them. Reasonable accommodations for attorneys require making a courtroom accessible. A non-exhaustive list of examples include: installing a ramp, widening an enclosed space such as the witness stand or jury box, making sure microphones are on and being used by opposing counsel and the judge, a screen reading program for electronic viewings, a sign language interpreter, use of a service animal, and lighting adjustments.
Back in December 2022, I had the chance to go down to the SDNY in Manhattan for a case at work. One of the first things I noticed was that the prosecution table, all of whom were from the District Attorney’s office had access to the court reporters’ transcript as she was transcribing what was being spoken. I remember thinking to myself that it was unusual because I have never seen it before and also because I would have never thought to ask for an accommodation like that. At one of the recesses, I asked the court reporter what it was, and she told me the prosecution had requested it for one of their attorneys. It was impressive to see the courts progressing and accommodating young attorneys.
Third, a competition is just that—a competition. They take place on the weekends and those in charge and the “judges” that preside volunteer their time. Therefore, the means to ensure students or others are accommodated simply may not be available. This often arises as a funding issue but can also stem from a competition labeling an accommodation burdensome. It seems unlikely a competition would adjust the location or an internal feature of such to accommodate a participant in a Mock Trial or Moot Court Competition. While this is seemingly unfair, it is often the case and students may choose not to join advocacy as a result, meaning they are deprived of an advantageous opportunity to practice litigation.
Turning back to my experience in the Hofstra Legal-Medical Mock Trial Competition, the first thing I noticed was that nowhere in the instructions or fact pattern was there any information on accommodations for students with disabilities. While this doesn’t seem like a big deal, it leaves students who may need an accommodation with no direction on how to figure out what to do. Obviously, there is always a point of contact listed on the fact pattern so students would be able to do that, but it is still a subtle form of omission which can leave students feeling excluded.
I also noticed the listed rules, specifically Rule 16. On its face it seemed like a normal rule, as most competitions disallow technology and rightfully so for the obvious reasons, such as cheating or contacting a coach during a round. Nevertheless, today so many people rely on technology for functional or assistive purposes. Rule 16 states, “16. Student team members may not use laptop computers, cell phones, tablets, watches or any other device that has the capacity to send or receive electronic communications at any time during a round including breaks, unless expressly given permission by the Tournament Director.”
The rule does indicate an advocate may be given permission by the Tournament Director, which is very beneficial. In that case, though, an advocate may be required to explain why they need the technology and thus disclose their disability or impairment, which can be out of their comfort zone. Of course, this is a dilemma for both advocacy programs, competitions and the advocates who need accommodations because a competition cannot be required to allow anyone to use or receive certain exemptions from the rules, as the privilege has the potential to be abused.
On the actual competition days, one thing that stood out to me was the layout of the courtroom and placement of the judges. Some courtrooms had counsel tables side-by-side, both facing the judge. Others had long tables with chairs at the end, closest to where spectators sit, meaning the advocates were far from where the presiding judge was seated. These different layouts can be challenging for any advocate, let alone one with a disability or impairment. For example, it can be challenging to see or hear. It may also be difficult for one to move around comfortably. This can be quite a predicament because the competition itself likely cannot do anything about the courtrooms. If a courtroom does have accommodations for its actual use during the week, I would strongly recommend that competition directors and advocates utilize them during advocacy competitions as well.
Joining an advocacy program and getting that “real-world” experience as a law student is priceless. Little things that seem inconsequential to most, can make a big difference for those with disabilities. While this article is my opinion based on my experience with disability and advocacy, I encourage school advocacy programs and competitions to reevaluate and take into consideration law student advocates with disabilities or impairments, to allow all to benefit from the invaluable skills acquired by participating.
 42 U.S.C. § 12132 (1990)