The lived experience of disabled students in law school: present realities and possible futures

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis


Disability is under-explored in legal education research and disabled people are “unexpected” in high status occupations like law (Foster & Hirst, 2020). However, “disability is everywhere” (Heyer & Mor, 2019) with disabled students making up a significant proportion of the student population. Their data story includes growing numbers disclosing a disability, particularly in terms of mental ill-health; under-performance; poorer outcomes on graduation; and the need for more support and adjustments (Office for Students, 2019). This thesis takes us beyond that data story and presents the lived experience of disability, particularly non-visible disability, for law students as they transition through law school and imagine their possible futures in the legal profession. Disability features in few equality reports or diversity initiatives in the legal profession, despite patterns of inequality being widely researched and reported over many years (Sommerlad, et al., 2010; Bridge Group, 2018; Friedman & Laurison, 2020). We have also come to know empirically that the profession law students seek to enter has a poor track record on disability (Foster & Hirst, 2020) and mental health (Jones, et al., 2020), despite wellbeing narratives gaining momentum in recent years (Collier, 2016; 2019; The Law Society, 2019).

In using phenomenology and Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) as the theoretical framework, methodology and method (Smith, et al., 2009), this thesis presents the meaning making processes of the participants as they explore their experiences of disability in law school. This thesis contributes to our understanding of disability, visible and non-visible, in law school by offering important new insights into law students’ understanding of the law, the duty of reasonable adjustments, how they use disclosure strategically depending on the context and how they construct their identities as future lawyers. It also presents an innovative methodological contribution. Phenomenology and IPA are unusual in legal research, but they enable an appreciation of how topics regulated by law are subjectively lived, experienced and interpreted by actors in the legal process.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Northumbria University
  • Ashford, Chris, Supervisor
  • Beadle, Ron, Supervisor
Award date23 Sept 2021
Place of PublicationNewcastle Upon Tyne
Publication statusUnpublished - 23 Sept 2021


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