Legally blind since the age of 12, Chicago attorney Patti Gregory-Chang has encountered her fair share of ignorance and patronization regarding her disability.
The one place where she didn’t expect that experience?
A bar association meeting.
“I came in to register, and the woman at the desk said, ‘Oh, honey, this is the bar association. Where are you trying to go?’ says Gregory-Chang, a lawyer for three decades. “I’m sure she meant well, but the message she sent was not good, it was not welcoming.”
As a member of the Disability Law Committee of the Illinois State Bar Association, Gregory-Chang has long advocated for lawyers with disabilities, educating fellow bar members—and staff—on how to better meet their needs, as well of those of the public. One part of that role, she says, is to serve as a bit of a bar gadfly.
“The bar is improving, but I’ve been pestering them for a while,” she adds.
While sometimes frank and even uncomfortable, that direct dialogue is critical to creating more accessible associations, according to disability rights advocates and bar leaders. Although such discussions—both inside and outside the bar—can help address short-term accessibility challenges, they say, it also has long-term implications. Increasingly longer life spans and later retirement ages may make it more likely that bar associations will see more members facing disabilities, with hearing and vision loss and decreased mobility and cognitive abilities being the most prevalent.
Knowing where accessibility challenges lie and addressing them immediately, many experts say, will make bars of any size more available and welcoming to all members—both now and in the years ahead.