Technology for the Disabled Attorney

Vol. 1, No. 1

Ellen Freedman, CLM, is the Law Practice Management Coordinator of the Pennsylvania Bar Association. Ellen is also president of Freedman Consulting (www.FreedmanLPM.com) and founder of The Managing Partner Development Institute® (www.managingpartnerinstitute.org). She blogs about law practice management topics at www.PA-LawPracticeManagement.com.

 

I have to admit that when I was asked to volunteer to write a TechNotes column for the GPSolo eReport, I was somewhat intimidated. That may seem like a strange statement coming from someone who publishes anywhere from one to three articles every month. However, I was a huge fan of former columnist Brett Burney; he is such an accomplished writer and technologist. Those are enormous shoes to fill, even if only for one issue. I have examined my foot size, and found it has come up lacking. But that will not deter me from offering my own insights, with the hope that you will find some useful nuggets of information you can use now or later.

 

This is one of those topics that might make you squirm a little, because no one likes to think about personal catastrophe. It’s one of the reasons why people—including lawyers—avoid creating a will or doing estate planning. But statistically speaking, the odds are that at some point in your career you will have to deal with a personal catastrophe on many levels, including figuring out how to return to the practice of law.

 

The causes of personal catastrophe are many. Here are some that I have seen occur to others over the course of my career: ski-mobile, motorcycle, and automobile accidents resulting in long comas and/or significant brain damage; one of the aforementioned events resulting in various forms of paralysis, or loss of limb; stroke; heart attack; loss of eyesight; loss of hearing; disease such as multiple sclerosis; cancer; Parkinson’s, blood disorders; and more.

 

Of course, not all forms of disability are caused by catastrophic events. People can be born with varying disabilities, and still become active and successful attorneys. Or a disability may develop and grow progressively more disabling later in life. But chances are the individuals that fall into this category have already discovered, and employed, much of what I’m about to share.

 

Keep in mind that the chances are that you will not need this information at this moment. Also keep in mind that it’s really not a question of whether you will need this information: it’s more a matter of when you will need it. So print this column to PDF or print and scan it into your computer, and hang onto it for when catastrophe strikes you, a colleague, or a loved one.

 

When I first started researching this topic, I was stunned by the wealth of resources available. So let’s begin by looking at where you can turn for additional information, since I will only be able to scratch the surface of available technology within the space of this article.

 

· The Assistive Technology Industry Association (www.atia.org) is a not-for-profit membership organization of manufacturers, sellers and providers of technology-based assistive devices and/or services. It’s a solid resource to find out what’s available, and where to get it.

· The AAC Institute (www.aacinstitute.org) is a not-for-profit, charitable organization dedicated to the most effective communication for people who rely on augmentative and alternative communication.

· The ADA National Network (www.adata.org) provides information, guidance, and training on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), tailored to meet the needs of business, government, and individuals at local, regional, and national levels. The ADA National Network consists of ten Regional ADA National Network Centers located throughout the United States that provides personalized, local assistance to ensure that the ADA is implemented wherever possible.

· The Resource Center for Independent Living (www.rcil.com) welcomes contact from consumers and professionals for information regarding assistive technology or other devices that may be needed.

· AbleData (www.abledata.com) is a compendium of information including almost 40,000 product listings in 20 categories, information centers, conferences, companies by state, libraries of publications, literature, and news. If your firm or bar is really interested in taking a more proactive stance on helping members find the assistance they need, the periodic conferences are the absolute best place to meet the key vendors and see the products personally.

· Disability.gov (www.disability.gov) is an award-winning federal government website that provides an interactive, community-driven information network of disability-related programs, services, laws and benefits. Here you can connect to thousands of resources from federal, state and local government agencies, educational institutions and nonprofit organizations.

· The British Columbia Ministry of Social Development offers information at its website (www.mhr.gov.bc,ca/pwd.htm) on everything from applying for disability assistance to locating equipment and assistive technology.

· Disability Assistance (www.povnet.org/node/4422) is a huge database of links related to Canadian disability issues created in collaboration between Federal, Provincial, and Territorial Ministers responsible for social services and developed in consultation with representatives from the disability community. The site can be searched for resources in specific provinces, or nationwide in Canada.

 

Now that you know where to go for further information and resources, let’s focus our attention on some specific technologies to use. You may not be aware that you already have some technologies employed at your office that are designed to help those with varying forms of disability. Both Microsoft and Apple have accessibility tools built into their software. You don’t pay more for it; it’s already there. Both offer free training guides to help you utilize these tools. To find out more about the tools from Microsoft go to www.microsoft.com/enable. To find out more about the accessibility tools from Apple go to www.apple.com/accessibiity.

 

Visually impaired attorneys have a wealth of options available. There are a number of reliable text-to-speech and screen reading programs to choose from, such as the Kurzweil 1000, which uses a combination optical character reader and text-to-speech program to convert printed text into speech. Likewise, JAWS is a popular screen reading software program utilized especially for surfing the Internet. ZoomText Xtra is a screen magnifier that provides 2x to 16x screen magnification. There is a nifty handheld scanning device offered in many mail order catalogs that can scan a book page and wirelessly transmit the image, greatly enlarged, onto a big flatscreen TV or monitor. Wonderful for reading books and magazines, or anything bound that can’t be fed through a traditional scanner.

 

What about the visually impaired lawyer on the go? Well, if you have an iPhone or Mac computer, you can use Apple VoiceOver (www.apple.com/accessibility/iphone/vision.html), which is a gesture-based screen reader, enabling you to “hear” the items on the screen just by touching it, and then activate it with a double-tap, even if you can’t see the screen at all.

 

How about shopping? Try Digit-Eyes Audio Scanner. It uses the phone’s camera and a software barcode reader to enable users to hear the names of more than 7.5 million products. It costs only $29.99, and it’s a real help at the market or big box store.

 

For slight visual impairments, something like Eyeglasses (only $2.99) uses the iPhone camera to magnify any object or label from 2x to 8x in size. For those with severe visual impairment, you may need to splurge for something like the Intel Reader (www.intel.com/corporate/healthcare/emea/eng/reader/about.htm), which is portable and unobtrusive. It takes pictures of printed material and then converts it to digital form and allows magnification and/or audio playback. Hold it over the printed text, push the Capture button to take a picture of the page, and the Reader will play it back to you on the spot. You can also store large amounts of text and listen to it later when it’s more convenient for you.

 

But, you may wonder, now that there is assistance to help with reading and shopping, how does a visually impaired attorney pay? Such a simple question, but it reminds one of the familiar problem of paying for services and goods in a foreign country when you don’t understand the denominations of the currency and don’t have a currency converter. Do you just hand over a wad of bills and hope the merchant is honest? Well, EyeNote (www.eyenote.gov) was developed by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing to use as a tool to increase accessibility to US paper currency. It’s built for the Apple iOS (available as a free download) to allow the user to scan a bank note and communicate its value back to the user. The app currently runs on the iPhone3G, 3Gs, iPhone4, iPod Touch, and iPad2.

 

Assistive technology for those suffering varying levels of physical/motor skill impairment range from the simple and inexpensive, to the extremely expensive (like the tools Steven Hawking would use.) If you have only one usable hand, something as simple as holding a book open comfortably for reading can be a challenge. For a few dollars the Thumb Thing Book Holder (www.abcstuff.com/items) solves the problem. On the other hand, someone who has little or no hand movement ability and needs to use a computer can use a TrackerPro Wireless USB Head Tracking Device (www.madentec.com/products/tracker-pro.php). This computer input device, which costs under $1,000, uses a high-resolution intelligent camera that tracks a small dot that you can place on your forehead, glasses, or the rim of a hat. Head movements substitute for mouse movements.

 

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, space limitations would allow me only to scratch the surface. And that’s all I’ve done. There are additional tools for motor skill impairment, a wealth of tools for hearing impairment, speech impairment, and so on. Plus, there are tools many lawyers employ regularly that are especially suited to help those with disabilities, such as voice recognition (speech-to-text), digital dictation, and more.

 

I am proud to say that I have been of assistance more than once to members of the Pennsylvania Bar Association who need to identify technologies that will enable them to productively practice law under a “new reality” or one that is significantly different than that in which most of their peers will function. And there is more focus on R&D of additional assistive products every day. Suffering a catastrophe doesn’t have to mean the end of one’s career. Technology can help you regain functionality.

 

This article is for informational use only and does not constitute legal advice or endorsement of any particular product or vendor.

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