Surrounded by the magnificent architecture showcased at the White House, Danielle Liebl was experiencing a life-changing event. On July 31, 2014, she joined fellow Special Olympics athletes, members of the Unified Generation, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama for a dinner at the White House. The event celebrated the work that Special Olympics does to activate young people to fight inactivity, intolerance and injustice in their schools and communities. At that dinner, Liebl’s entire life plan changed dramatically.
Liebl was lucky enough to sit next to First Lady Obama's Chief of Staff Tina Tchen. Sparking a conversation about her involvement with Special Olympics, Liebl shared that she started "DIFFERbilities Experience," a nonprofit organization that "provides friendship and inclusion-building opportunities to high school and college students both with and without disabilities in a controlled environment."
Liebl was proud of the work DIFFERbilities Experience was doing. However, even with starting a nonprofit that focuses on inclusion, she felt like she could make more of an impact. Amazed by Liebl’s poise and confidence, Tchen laughed and told her, “You would make a great lawyer; you should just be a lawyer."
And just like that, Liebl’s life took a sharp turn. With no real plan, Liebl signed up for the LSAT when she got home that evening. "I don't recommend doing that; I recommend thinking about it longer," she says in a joking manner, expressing that the test is very hard.
It's possible that without that conversation with Tchen at dinner, Liebl would have never started on the journey to becoming a lawyer. It's an experience that, while short-lived, made a life-changing impact. But it was one she’d been preparing for her whole life, even if she didn’t realize it.
"I think Special Olympics gave me a sense of confidence and there's nothing to be ashamed of (if you have a disability)," Liebl says. Up until high school, Liebl competed in swimming and golf with Special Olympics. Transitioning to high school, she swam for the varsity team. Competing in the 100m backstroke, 100m freestyle and 100m breaststroke, she says, “swimming is still my favorite sport,” but jokes about playing Unified golf with her dad, saying, “the joke is we were Unified partners until he found a better one.”
"It (Special Olympics) especially helped me in high school. And looking back in law school, there's a box you have to fit in and if you fall outside that box, you're not going to be accepted," she says about the confidence she gained from competing in sports.
She remembers having accommodations offered by the Office of Disability Services, such as note-taking and testing services. During the semester, an experience that's all too familiar for people with disabilities occurred. A teacher told her she couldn't have accommodations because "it's not allowed in my class; I'm going to have to grade you differently." Without hesitation, she gives credit to Special Olympics, saying, "without the confidence that Special Olympics gave me, I wouldn't know that I needed this. There is nothing wrong with my disability or doing things a different way."
It's a positive reminder that listening to your gut is one of the strongest instincts a human can experience. During an IEP (Individual Educational Plan) meeting in high school, her special education teacher mentioned, “you know I think we need to look at a two-year community college because I don’t think you can handle the four-year college experience.” But without any second thoughts, Liebl told herself, “I’m going to apply,” to four-year schools.
She did and ended up graduating from the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University, saying, “it was the greatest college experience, and I don’t regret it.”
She took that same level of determination with her to law school, always blazing her own path.
"In law school, they focus heavily on litigation, which is what people traditionally think of when they think of a lawyer and I hated being in the courtroom," Liebl says, explaining the process of determining what type of law she wanted to practice. "I hated the feeling that it was ‘us versus them.’” But through college internships working in corporate law, she realized that she found her place because, "there was one common goal, and you had to figure out how to work together."
After graduating from the University of St. Thomas School of Law in 2018, Liebl went to work for a large law firm.
"I worked at a big law firm that had 26 offices worldwide, and I was doing real estate," she says. Working on leases and negotiating leases for shopping centers, she says, "I was burnt out," and starting to question if this was really what she wanted to do; she decided to research other options.
Her friend from school was working at Amazon and mentioned his team was hiring. "Working at a place that raises the disability voice and values people with disabilities was a really high priority," Liebl says.
Amazon has a strong disability employment group. They do an excellent job making sure everything in the company is accessible, valuing each employee for who they are as an individual.
Amazon has an Applicant-Candidate Accommodation Team (ACAT), where an entire team is set up to help the candidate throughout the interview process. In addition to those services, Amazon offers vocational rehabilitation and affinity groups. The company has won numerous awards for its efforts employing people with disabilities and offers a variety of resources that make candidates like Liebl feel comfortable and confident.
"It really impressed me," she says, also mentioning, "it's a very competitive company when it comes to hiring and just by luck and coaching from my classmates, I got the best job and the best co-workers. We are the dream team."
Each day Liebl goes to work as an Associate Corporate Counsel for Amazon, she experiences something new. She says with enthusiasm, "that's a good question I think every lawyer wants to answer," about what a workday looks like.
"It totally depends on the day," she says, as every day keeps her on her toes. "I work with our partner network and for our Amazon Web Services. So, Amazon has the store that everyone knows and uses, but then we also offer web service," she continues as she explains that Amazon Web Services is a comprehensive cloud platform.
Another bonus of working for Amazon? Living in Seattle, Washington. Enjoying what nature offers, Liebl takes walks every day and goes for hikes, living about 30 minutes from the mountains. She says, "there's always a new hike." She also enjoys a good documentary, saying, "so pretty much every documentary on Netflix and Hulu I've probably watched."
Regardless of what she's doing on any given day--working at Amazon, staying active outside, reading, or watching documentaries, every life lesson Liebl has learned has some connection to Special Olympics and the power of sports to create more inclusive communities. Without the organization, she wouldn't have the confidence nor the ability to inspire the generation following in her footsteps. It's a reminder that no matter the obstacle put in front of you, there's always a way to achieve your dream.
"Don't be afraid to be creative because there is always going to be roadblocks, and there's always going to be people that say, ‘I don't think you can do it’," Liebl says to other Special Olympics athletes who have dreams of attending school or joining the workforce. "Be true to who you are; know yourself."
It was Liebl's journey with Special Olympics and creativity starting a nonprofit organization that sparked a conversation with the First Lady’s Chief of Staff at the White House, and it was because of that conversation that law school became a possibility. It's a story that shows just how powerful the message of inclusion and acceptance can be when it’s showcased at all levels.