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June 13, 2009

Katrina Gossett Pushes Change From Wheelchair as Law Graduate

When Katrina Gossett, a Baker & Daniels summer associate in 2007 and 2008, arrived at the University of Chicago Law School three years ago, she heard about a professor who'd told a class it was a waste of money to make accommodations for students who need a wheelchair, the Chicago Sun-Times reported in its story "Law Grad Rolls Over Barriers at U. of C."

On June 12, Gossett became the first wheelchair-using student to graduate from the law school, receiving multiple honors, the story continued. But her greatest accomplishment might have been pushing for the changes that made it possible for herself, and others who will follow her, to attend the school.

"She has broadened the vision of the university," Law School Dean of Students Michele Richardson told the Chicago Sun-Times. The school even provided a special hood for Gossett's aid dog, Duke, to wear at the law school hooding ceremony marking graduation. The 5½-year-old retriever-Lab mix had spent every minute in class with her, according to the story.

The 23-year-old from Indianapolis was born with spinal muscular atrophy, which weakens the arms and legs and gets worse with age, the story reported. She has some use of her hands but needs help moving her arms, turning on lights, picking things up and opening doors.

Gossett majored in theater at the University of Notre Dame and decided to pursue law, the Chicago Sun-Times reported. When Gossett first visited the U. of C., she could only enter the law school through a back entrance. But the law school was undergoing a major renovation that included making the 50-year-old building at 1111 E. 60th more accessible, and a ramp was added to the front entrance, according to the story.

Still, some classrooms had problems. The only accessible part of some was right next to the professor. But the school made changes, including making the touch pads that open doors easier for Duke to push, and adding keypads to other doors and elevators. Because Gossett had difficulty turning pages, the school found electronic versions of her books or scanned them into a computer.

Richardson told the Chicago Sun-Times that Gossett's presence at the school opened eyes and speeded up accessibility upgrades. "Katrina probably moved us along a little faster," she said. After Gossett complained about stone paths in the school's historic quad being "totally unsuitable for a wheelchair," the school is making changes.

"The U. of C. is such an important school academically," Gossett said in the story. "It would be a shame if someone thought they couldn't come here because of accessibility."

Gossett was named a Kirkland and Ellis Scholar her first year, an honor given to the top 5 percent of the class, and was later named to the Order of the Coif, a national honor society. She graduated with honors, worked at a legal clinic, served on the Law Students Association and performed in a law school musical with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer.

"Many students who do not face the challenges she does don't do as much,'' Richardson told the Chicago Sun-Times. Gossett is moving back to Indianapolis, where she has a job lined up. Like many graduates, though, her start date at the firm has been delayed a year because of the economy. She's looking for work in the meantime.

"I love finding solutions to problems," Gossett said in the story.

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