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Syracuse University Law Student Prepares for a Future Championing Disability Rights

December 17, 2021
Source: Syracuse University

Matthew Yanez L’23 has seen the justice system at work firsthand. Growing up in California, Yanez had an uncle who was incarcerated at the Twin Towers Correctional Facility in Los Angeles. He and his father would visit his uncle on Saturday mornings, and that glimpse into the justice system sparked his interest in a career in law.

Yanez is a dual degree student in the College of Law, focusing on disability law and policy, and the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, where he’s studying public administration. He’s certain the two degrees will advance him toward his career goals of working for the federal government in the Department of Justice to advocate for people with disabilities.

Yanez has already gotten some great experience under his belt—last summer he interned for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia, where he reviewed settlement agreements enforcing the Americans with Disabilities Act, drafted motions for civil litigation and put together a summary of Supreme Court cases involving disability rights. This exposure to his desired career path led him to join the Disability Rights Clinic at the College of Law so that he could continue working on amplifying disabled the voices of those with disabilities in the Syracuse community. The Disability Law and Policy Program at the College of Law, directed by Professor Arlene Kanter, has given Yanez the guidance needed to pursue his dreams of becoming a civil rights attorney.

His passion for disability rights—as well as his prior policy experiences with the Arc of the United States, the Coelho Center for Disability Law, Policy and Innovation at Loyola Law School and the American Association of People with Disabilities—led to an invitation to join a round-table discussion at the White House with other advocates and Vice President Kamala Harris. “It was a very humbling opportunity to be able to advocate for the needs of my community,” Yanez says. He had written detailed notes of the points he wanted to make about how recent voting restrictions will affect voters with disabilities and says the vice president was eager to discuss the role the White House can play in this fight.

We recently talked with Yanez about his experiences as a Syracuse University student and disability rights advocate.

Why did you want to pursue a joint degree program in the College of Law and the Maxwell School?

Prior to starting law school, I worked at a multitude of organizations where I developed my litigation, policy and advocacy skills. I knew that to reach my full potential, I needed a professional education that would offer more than a law degree. The College of Law and the Maxwell School offer a comprehensive education focused on the intersection of law and policy. The knowledge and experience I gain from this education will be crucial as I navigate the public organizations I hope to operate within.

Why are you interested in the law?

I’ve been interested in law since I was a child, but it wasn’t until I was older that I began to view the legal profession as a way to solve problems. I believe understanding the far-reaching implications that laws and policies have on an environment will greatly benefit my career later in life.

Why do you want to work for the Department of Justice?

I’m passionate about working in the federal government to protect the civil rights of people with disabilities. Throughout my education, I’ve come to realize that a law means very little unless it is enforced. The Department of Justice plays an important role in enforcing civil rights legislation passed by Congress and I want to be a part of that process.

How is Syracuse University helping you prepare for your career goals?

What I most enjoy about being a Syracuse student is the breadth of knowledge available at my fingertips. I love having access to the resources of other world-renowned colleges at the University while still focusing on my legal education. For example, I can dive deeper into the Disability Law and Policy program at the College of Law while learning about the leadership and policy strategies that federal agencies employ at the Maxwell School.

Where have you interned and what did you learn from those experiences?

I have been fortunate to intern and work at private law firms and for city council members in Los Angeles, the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington, D.C., national nonprofit advocacy organizations, protection and advocacy agencies, and the Department of Justice.

These work experiences taught me that problems don’t have linear solutions waiting to be found, and no single person holds the answers. Most problems require a multifaceted approach and a variety of experts for a solution to succeed. Working with people who bring a diverse set of perspectives to the table can lead to the best results.

Why are you passionate about advocacy?

I’m passionate about advocacy because, as a person with a disability, I’ve had to advocate my entire life. I was born with unilateral hearing loss, also known as single-sided deafness, and I didn’t receive proper accommodations and hearing aids until I was graduating college. I have a younger brother who is also hearing-impaired, and I’ve done what I can to ensure that he doesn’t go through the same struggles that I did growing up without proper services.

What kinds of advocacy work are you engaged in?

I’ve worked with nonprofit organizations to ensure that national representatives serve the needs of the disability community. This has meant participating in initiatives such as the 2020 census, speaking at the first-ever disability voting summit for a presidential election and a round-table discussion with Vice President Kamala Harris. I am also preparing to write several articles about pervasive legal issues that affect the disability community.

How did you feel being selected for Vice President Harris’s round-table discussion on a subject you’re so passionate about?

Speaking with Vice President Harris on the importance of protecting the right to vote in the disability community reinforced that I’m on the right path and can make a positive impact during my career as a civil rights attorney. It also showed me that there is hope for real change when communities remain organized and determined for their perspectives to be heard. It was the honor of a lifetime to have been invited and I hope we can use this momentum to create positive change.

What organizations are you involved with on campus, and why?

I am vice president of the Disability Law Society, a member of the Syracuse Public Interest Network and the First Generation Law Students Association. I joined these student organizations because they address different aspects of legal work that I want to work in, and participation allows me to network with like-minded students and professors. I am also involved with the Burton Blatt Institute to support the important policy and legal research required to push the disability rights movement forward.

Who are your mentors and some of the professors who have been most influential?

I’ve had plenty of amazing professors during my time at Syracuse. But the most influential have been Professor Arlene Kanter, Professor Michael Schwartz and Professor Peter Blanck. They each individually touch on the litigation, policy and advocacy skills that I want to further expand upon at Syracuse University.

What has been the most rewarding aspect of your Syracuse experience?

I was first introduced to Syracuse University when I attended an alumni event in Los Angeles. I knew instantly that Syracuse was the right school for me and connecting with the expansive alumni network has been the most rewarding part. Syracuse alumni have played an important role as mentors for the type of career I hope to establish post-graduation.

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