Katherine O’Neal ‘22
1L First Year Council President and Disabilities Rights Advocate
Hi Katherine, and thanks for joining us on the Hot Bench! Where are you from?
I moved around a lot. The longest place I stayed in is Asheville, North Carolina. That’s where I feel most comfortable.
Can you tell us something about Asheville?
It’s kind of a hippie town. There was a guy who would dress up in a nun costume and ride a ten foot tall pink bicycle.
Please you tell me you have a picture of this.
[see Pictures File in Dropbox]
Where did you go for undergrad?
University of Alabama, it was great. I’m a big football fan. I definitely needed to get out of Tuscaloosa after three and a half years though.
That’s an early graduation isn’t it?
Yes, I studied at Oxford for a summer through my undergrad, and I had credits going into college, so I graduated early. I studied English and African American Studies.
What did you do between graduation and law school?
I graduated in December 2018, so I spent about eight months napping.
When did you start thinking about law school?
When I was little, I wanted to be a politician before I saw the error of my ways. But anyway, you need to be a lawyer to be a good politician, so I became interested in the law. For a while though, I wanted to be a doctor, but it’s hard to pass chemistry when you’re colorblind. In the end, I was deciding between a PhD and law school, and, when I was writing my thesis, I thought to myself, “I would die if I had to do this forever.”
Now that you’re here, what are some of your plans?!
Short term? Don’t fail out. Obviously. Long term, my idea dream job is working in entertainment law for the NFL or Disney. I would love to do transactional work for those companies.
Let’s switch tracks a little and talk about the First Year Council (FYC). What motivated you to run?
I ran on a platform of unity. As FYC President, I want to crowdsource and step out of the Law School bubble to see what other graduate programs are doing to support their first years. It’s a lot easier to accomplish things when you have a wider perspective. My big platform was that , to help ourselves, we need to step outside of ourselves.
What’s one initiative from other graduate programs that you’re looking to implement?
The SilverCloud app. It’s basically a self-guided therapy app and there are specific programs for treating anxiety or depression. A lot of people tell me they don’t have time to see someone, so this will be really useful in the Law School environment, because we’re always going and going. People can use it at their own pace, and there are resources to connect people with real life providers here or at Main Grounds. A five minute mental break can really make a difference.
I hear that you and Jill Quigley (’22) are starting a club for students with disabilities. Can you tell us more?
We want to create a student group to support disabled and chronically ill students and to educate allies. Disabilities can vary from learning disabilities to physical disabilities. Sometimes, the Law School is good about giving support, but sometimes there’s a gap in terms of what’s offered and what’s needed. We hope this group will help the administration and our peers to understand our experiences and needs. At this point, we’re trying to write our constitution.
What inspired you to advocate for students with disabilities?
I became disabled and chronically ill my first semester of college. I never had any health issues the first eighteen years of my life and, to be hit with that suddenly, I gained a unique perspective. I can see the gaps and I’m comfortable advocating to fill those gaps and needs. Since I have this voice, why wouldn’t I use it?
What is your unique perspective?
I have really clear notions of the biases that disabled people face because I have to face them. At the same time, I remember my life from before I was chronically ill. I can use my prior experiences of health to have conversations with people. It’s more of a skill than a perspective.
Are you comfortable talking about your disabilities?
Yes, I would rather be open than have people be concerned or assume things. It’s much easier to give a five-minute explanation than to have to re-inform people later on. I have six autoimmune and autonomic diseases. Basically, my white blood cells attack my tissues, joints, and organs, and my nerves don’t work, and I have an undiagnosed neurological issue.
What’s one thing people might not know about your disabilities?
It’s hard to communicate the amount of pain I’m in, because I may look okay on the outside. The medicines that I have to take can also make me feel bad. For example, I take a drug that was typically used in chemotherapy and it makes me really sick once a week. I hurt all the time and I get really tired. I get sick if I eat any food. It’s a hard balance, because the medicines I take harm me to help me.
Let’s do a lightning round!
Favorite place in Charlottesville?
Honestly, I really like my townhouse. Just laying there with my dog, it’s my homebase and I feel really comfy.
I watch a lot of Netflix. The Real Housewives in particular.
People not reading their emails and then asking me questions that were answered in the email.
If you could live anywhere, where would it be?
Oh, it would be back at Oxford, favorite place in the world.
What is your least favorite sound?
People gulping water. I don’t know why, there’s just something about that noise, especially in class.
Where’s a place you’ve never been, but would like to go?
I really want to go to California. I’m looking at the LA market and I would like to go before I commit to working there.
What do you like to do for fun?
I’m a classically trained musician, so that’s my go-to. Oboe and English Horn are my primary instruments, and I’m a trained singer. I was on a music scholarship for a bit before I retired.
What’s one movie that left an impression on you?
I really like the Birdcage, it’s my favorite movie. I think it says a lot about taking someone as they are. It’s also extremely funny.
If you won the lottery, what would you do with it?
Other than pay off loans, I would probably put it in a trust for my family. I don’t like spending money. It stresses me out.
If you could pick one song to play in the background of your life, what would it be?
“Diet Soda Society” by The Maine—It’s an all-occasion song that my friends and I listened to all the time. Personally, I think it’s a bop.
If you could make one rule that everyone had to follow, what would it be?
There are so many. One, read your email. Honestly, read your email. But, if I were ruler of the universe and I could make one rule, I would say that I get one Diet Coke every day and everyone would take shifts bringing me one.
What’s your favorite thing about the Law School?
That I don’t feel like I’m competing academically with anyone. We’re all building each other up. We’re all going to pass collectively as a group. It’s nice.
 Eds. Note: if you feel like you’re too busy to talk to a therapist, go visit Dr. Kate Gibson. She’s located right in Slaughter, so you don’t even have to leave the school. She’s wonderful. As a lawyer herself, she understands what law school is like.