November 08, 2007

Law student wins prestigious scholarship

by Eric Welch

CARBONDALE, Ill. — The term "disability" doesn't sit well Elizabeth Gastelum. She doesn't believe being deaf means she is less capable than anyone else. And as a recent winner of the prestigious Women's Bar Foundation Scholarship, the third-year law student at Southern Illinois University Carbondale has a good point.

"This is a major achievement," said Frank Houdek, associate dean for academic affairs and professor in the SIU School of Law, who accompanied Gastelum to the scholarship ceremony in Chicago earlier this fall. "Elizabeth competed against all female law students in Illinois, which is probably several thousand."

To be considered for one of the nine scholarships, applicants must possess exceptional academic standing and a long public service record.

"It's a pretty rigorous review of applicants," Houdek said. "They have to submit a curriculum vitae, a nomination letter from their law school and a personal statement as well as go to an interview in Chicago."

Gastelum's background matches up well with the requirements of the $3,000 scholarship. The Springfield native ranks in the top 10 females in her class, is a member of the editorial staff of the Journal of Legal Medicine, has served as the program coordinator for the Illinois Deaf and Hard of Hearing Commission and has volunteered for the Illinois Association of the Deaf.

And Gastelum, who has had a severe-profound binaural sensory hearing impairment since she was 18 months old, has done it all in a world of auditory silence. Yet she doesn't see herself as "disabled or defective" or any less capable than other law students because of the relative nature of disabilities.

"The term 'disabled' comes as much from the viewer and the lens and the environment as it does from the particular physical characteristic the person possesses," she said. "Laws define 'disability' in different ways so that a particular individual may have a disability under one statute, but not meet the definition of 'disability' that is used in another statute."

Gastelum also pointed out that her professors teach their classes using spoken English simply because it conforms to the majority of students.

"However, if I went to a law school where the professors signed in American Sign Language … then I would have no basis for requesting a 'reasonable accommodation' as an individual with a 'disability' because my fluency in American Sign Language would evaporate any claim I could make at being 'disabled,'" she said.

To keep up with the lectures, Gastelum employs technology instead of the traditional interpreter.

"There's a laptop next to me in class that … delivers word for word the conversation in the classroom at a speed that can reach well over 225 words a minute," she said.

With her laptop replacing the need for personal assistance, Gastelum has unlimited independence and opportunity in both the classroom and the courtroom. After law school, she hopes to work in a small firm or as a solo practitioner, catering mainly to individuals and families with physical differences.

"I don't want to do 'disability law' per se, but I do want a practice that affords real people the ability to handle their personal and business affairs with ease," she said.

Gastelum is particularly interested in "special education and reasonable accommodation issues under the American with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act" as well as providing estate and business planning.

Houdek praised Gastelum's character and resolve during his speech at the scholarship ceremony in Chicago.

"At the SIU School of Law, we find few students with as much dignity – or accomplishment – as Elizabeth Gastelum. We are pleased that the Women's Bar Foundation has recognized this as well by presenting her with an academic scholarship for 2007-2008."

"I am still shocked," Gastelum said. "At the dinner, the members of the Foundation posed for a picture. I could not help but stare at them. It was a beautiful group of dynamic, tough and empowered women. I am honored to receive a scholarship in their name."