Law School is Hard, but Not Usually This Hard by Joel Brown/photos by Cydney Scott
This story was excerpted from a piece originally published by BU Today, Boston University’s online news website. Review the original story.
Genetic disorder, poverty, and losses couldn’t hold Gaetano Mortillaro (LAW ’21/SSU ’17) back
From poor son of a Gloucester lobsterman to law school graduate is a story that any University would be proud to tell, but the obstacles Mortillaro has surmounted are the stuff of Shakespeare—with the last act set during a pandemic, too.
A rare genetic condition has limited Mortillaro’s height and mobility and burdens him with severe pain at times. Spondyloepiphyseal dysplasia congenita is a bone growth disorder that affects everything from his spine to his joints. His father and brother were born with it as well, and it ended his father’s career in the fishing industry. He and his brother had numerous surgeries at Nemours Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Delaware, which specializes in treating the condition. His father drove them there again and again, in hopes that their lives would be easier than his.
“The condition results in deformed joints, where movement destroys cartilage at a high rate, so by the time my father was 30 or 35, his joints were beyond repair,” Mortillaro says. “That’s in large part what motivated him to take us to Delaware. I’ve never met someone as dedicated to protecting his kids.”
Mortillaro first entered LAW in 2017[i], but a health crisis forced him to take a leave of absence and start over a year later. He gets around on an electric bike, but has needed accommodations to make school work for him, both at Salem State University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in political science, summa cum laude[ii], and at LAW, where he has earned a law degree and is finishing up a master of laws in taxation. Those accommodations range from special seating to extra time between classes, and pre-pandemic, speeding up the delivery of the videos of classes when he could not attend in person. Others arose at an off-campus internship, which he reached by bike even in the winter because he couldn’t afford a T pass.
Life with a disability can be frustrating, but Mortillaro has developed ways of explaining his predicaments and negotiating for what he needs.
“If you presume the best possible interpretation and give people the benefit of the doubt, but are also steadfast in advocating for yourself,” he says, “it tends to produce the best possible results.
“My father had such a steadfast commitment to us. The strength of advocacy came from him. He showed me and told me the level of consistency and persistence you actually need to overcome systems because you have a disability, and they don’t necessarily have changes that they can make to help you unless you are willing to advocate for them.”
Things continue looking up. Mortillaro has secured a job, beginning in October, as an international tax associate with the professional services giant PwC, which he says will bring him both professional fulfillment and an unfamiliar financial security. He plans to take the Massachusetts bar exam this summer. In the future, Mortillaro says, he might seek a government policy job, or even—he grins when told this is not a huge surprise—run for office.
[i] Boston University Law School
[ii] Class of 2017, Salem State University