Class of ’24: Law Student Capitalized on Multiple Abilities

May 8, 2024 By Melissa Castro Wyatt, Melissa Castro Wyatt,

During his three years of law school at the University of Virginia, somewhere between torts, corporations and softball games, Joseph Camano was named an All-American in tennis and sang a solo at Carnegie Hall. If those feats aren’t impressive enough, consider he accomplished everything while working with just one full limb – his powerful left arm.

When he graduates with his classmates May 19, Camano, who was born without legs, hip sockets or a fully functional right arm, will head to New York City to work at the law firm Sidley Austin.

“My approach to life so far has been, ‘You can find a way if you want to make it happen,’” Camano said.

‘Inside UVA’ A Podcast Hosted by Jim Ryan
‘Inside UVA’ A Podcast Hosted by Jim Ryan

To become a champion tennis player, finding a way meant learning to serve the ball by flipping it off his racquet before thwacking it over the net. To participate in softball with his first-year law classmates from Section F, he learned to hit line drives by using his dominant arm to pull the bat toward the pitch, like a tennis backhand. And to get to Carnegie Hall … well, it’s just like the punchline to the old dad joke, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.”

Supportive Parents

Camano was born in Virginia Beach to parents who emigrated from the Philippines. His father, a U.S. Navy officer, refused to accept his son’s physical disability and multiple surgeries as excuses for not participating in life.

“Their mindset was always just use what you’ve been given and work with it as best you can,” Camano said.

His mom supported him when he wanted to try football at age 4 and signed him up for a musical when he was 14. He excelled in the theater, landing the lead role in “Seussical the Musical,” and although football didn’t work out, it was his gateway to various other adaptive sports, including basketball, rugby, swimming, martial arts and sled hockey.

Camano with his softball league
Camano’s love of athletics led him to the North Grounds Softball League. (Contributed photo)

His father also went to bat for him, first to get him into inclusive classes and then to retain his in-school physical and occupational therapy services. 

“My parents were really pushing for the inclusive class because they knew I didn’t have a developmental or mental disability,” Camano said. “But once I was in the inclusive class and my grades weren’t bad, the school asked why I would need special services at all.”

His dad contacted the disAbility Law Center of Virginia, in Richmond, to develop a strategy to lobby the school to retain his services. 

In a twist of fate, when Camano volunteered his legal services in the School of Law’s alternative spring break his first year of law school, he was matched with the same disability law center.

“I didn’t even know my parents had done that for me until I mentioned my spring break plans to them,” Camano said. “I was just like, ‘Wow, we’ve come so far.’”

At Randolph-Macon College, Camano triple-majored in English, music and Asian studies, with a minor in Japanese language and history.

Camano performing in the Libel Show hosted by School of Law
Camano’s extracurricular activities also included performing in the School of Law’s annual Libel Show, which pokes fun at law school culture. (Photo by Julia Davis)

While in Japan for a summer research project, he studied the role music played in helping Japan recover from the 2011 nuclear disaster triggered by an earthquake and tsunami. He found he was equally interested in another student’s project, which examined the role of the Japanese legal system in the disaster and recovery.

“I’d never really thought about law much, but seeing my interest, one of the advisers on the trip encouraged me to take her Con Law class and think about taking the LSAT,” Camano said. “I wanted to stay close to family, and UVA Law felt like a welcoming environment and the right fit for me.”

The Only Law Student in a Wheelchair

At orientation, Camano noticed he was the only student in a wheelchair. He wondered whether students would stare. Maybe they would avoid eye contact. 

Instead, they welcomed him into the fold, he said.

He performed in the Libel Show his first year, played softball all three years, played piano and sang with his friends in Caplin Pavilion, and served on the Virginia Tax Review and as a research assistant for the development of professor Cathy Hwang’s corporations casebook.

Camano playing tennis, left, and performing solo, right
In addition to being a talented tennis player, Camano is an accomplished singer and once performed a solo at Carnegie Hall. (Photo by Erin Edgerton, University Communications/Contributed photo)

Professor Molly Shadel, who teaches public speaking and advocacy courses, said she was struck by Camano’s stage presence and warm nature. 

“He projects so much confidence and good humor in everything he does. It’s extraordinary to me how, when you hear him speak, you quickly forget that he’s got any sort of disability and you just focus on how he’s got a really powerful presence,” Shadel said. “He certainly inspired me, and I think he had that impact on everyone in our class.”

The Tennis Bug

Camano didn’t pick up a tennis racket until early in his second year at UVA, after a stranger in line at a restaurant recruited him for the UVA wheelchair tennis team. That commitment has taken him to out-of-state tournaments nearly every month, including the collegiate nationals in Florida. 

Last school year, he joined Incarnation Church’s choir for an opportunity to sing again. The choir was invited to sing backup vocals for a performer at Carnegie Hall in February 2023, and Camano was offered a solo to open one of the songs.

At least one UVA Law classmate will be joining him at Sidley’s New York office in the fall – Madison Clark, who says she bonded with Camano over a “shared love of choral music.”

“Not only was he hard-working, he was also one of the people doing the most work to connect the other UVA summer associates with other alumni at the firm,” Clark said. “Being his friend has truly been such an honor, and I can’t wait to continue working together next year.”

Once Camano settles into the Big Apple, in between term sheets and due diligence reviews, he hopes to make a little time for music.

“Delving into that music scene up there would be really cool,” Camano said. “I’m sure it’s gonna be a super busy time — maybe somewhere in between work and everything else I can take up voice lessons again.”

As Camano and his classmates know, he will find a way if he wants to make it happen.

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