With a law degree and an impressive resume that includes a Congressional internship and recognition as one of the top law students in the country, Amanda Bagwell shouldn’t have had difficulty finding a job. Her blindness, however, complicates matters.
After a lifetime of battling for her rights, she’s taking her experience and using it to make a difference for others with disabilities.
“I want to break down stigmas on the front line,” said Bagwell, 28. “I want to be the person helping employers understand what they can do to reasonably accommodate people with disabilities, to help them reach their maximum potential.”
It's a daunting task.
According to the US. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 17.9 percent of persons with a disability were employed in 2020, down from 19.3 percent in 2019. By comparison, 61.8 percent of people without a disability were employed during that same time period, down from 66.3 percent the previous year.
These numbers do not shock Bagwell, as a person who has lived this reality.
In addition to her bachelor’s degree in psychology from IU Kokomo, Bagwell graduated from the Valparaiso University School of Law in 2018, and was recognized by The National Jurist magazine as one of 20 law students nationwide who contributed the most to their law schools and communities in the previous year.
Even with these accolades, “I struggled getting a job,” she said. “I’m educated, I have experience, I have a wonderful resume.
“I know how it feels to be told, very diplomatically, ‘Well, we have other candidates,’” she continued, “I’m sure they do. They don’t understand how I can do the job. I know how that stings.”
Understanding those challenges, Bagwell has made it her life’s mission to help. She co-owns a web accessibility compliance business, and also works as a counselor for vocational rehabilitation through Indiana’s Family and Social Services Administration. Her goal is to earn her law license to help write policies that make employment easier.
“Just because we have disabilities doesn’t mean we don’t deserve a life,” she said. “I want to help. I believe the best way I can do that is to help adjust existing policies, write new policies, and bring my knowledge to the table regarding regulations. Whether I’m blessed to do that in vocational rehabilitation or somewhere else, I want to serve.”
Bagwell said many times, there are small accommodations that can make a huge difference. For example, she uses a larger computer monitor. She also has a guide dog, a yellow lab named Buddington.
“Most people, I have found, once they are given the correct tools in their toolbox, can do very well,” she said. “I’ve enjoyed helping them have their basic needs met, and then watch them grow and develop, to become their own advocate for their rights, handling it professionally moving forward. It’s fulfilling to me to see they can stand on their own and move forward and be part of society.”
Bagwell sets an example for her clients, with her own persistence, tenacity, and independence.
“There’s a creative way for everything,” she said. “I’m used to doing things by myself. When my parents got sick, I would walk to the school bus by myself. I’ve cooked, cleaned, and walked home from law school. It’s all by trial and error. You have to figure out a way to do something, when push comes to shove.”
Bagwell has challenged herself since she lost her sight, shortly after her fourth birthday, due to a connective tissue disorder.
“I had to re-learn how to live,” she said. “I had to learn how to feed myself, and how to navigate my surroundings. I was already reading and writing, but then had to learn to read Braille with my hands.”
Her mother and stepfather pushed for her needs at school, but when their health struggles left them unable to do so, she had to take that job on herself at a very young age.
“When they got sick, I learned that someone had to get up and do it, and it was going to have to be me advocating for myself,” she said.
After graduating from high school, she first earned a community college degree, then enrolled at IU Kokomo. She found a welcoming environment while earning her bachelor’s degree in psychology, graduating in 2015 — with her guide dog, Roscoe, accompanying her across the stage.
“It set the trend for what I should ask when I went to graduate school,” she said of her IU Kokomo experience. She was able to receive documents in an electronic format, allowing her to read them on her computer, which she was allowed to use in class for note taking. She also received extra time on tests, to accommodate for her screen reader, which was essentially talking software, to read the information.
“I got the hands-on help I needed, which allowed me to mature and grow up in a more family-based setting,” she said.
Law school was harder, because she had to push for many of the accommodations she needed. On top of the rigorous class schedule and hours of study she and her classmates had to do, she also spent countless hours scanning print textbooks into a program that read them to her, or contacting publishers to send her PDFs to scan. She took exams either in Braille or on a Word document where she could type answers — often folding the screen down so her classmates couldn’t read her answers, because of professors’ concerns.
Sarah Sarber, IU Kokomo’s chief of staff, who is also a law school graduate, talked her through career options, leading her to policy and regulation. Bagwell gained experience in that area as an intern with Congresswoman Robin Kelly in Chicago.
In her role, she drafted policies for local companies, networked, helped with programs to get children from low income families access to college, spoke with constituents, and organized educational events.
“How else can you be part of your society, unless you have knowledge?” she said. “If you don’t know what you’re advocating for when you talk to your employer, you can’t protect yourself.”