What is your disability? How does it affect you as a lawyer?
I am totally blind and hearing-impaired. My disabilities do create some challenges for my work, just as in life generally, however I have been able to cope with those challenges through a combination of creativity, accessible technology, extra effort and some great mentoring. In a field as reading-intensive as law, the inability to see the printed word presents some obvious inconveniences, however I am glad to say that the aforementioned resources have empowered me to keep pace with my attorney peers.
What accommodations do you use in the workplace? Have you encountered any obstacles or challenges from your employers, or colleagues, or schools in obtaining accommodations?
I utilize just a few accommodations to meet the requirements of my job. I use screen-reading software that reads aloud any text on my computer screen and allows me to navigate everything from websites to Word documents to spreadsheets to Westlaw. I also use optical character recognition software that reads aloud the text of any hard-copy documents that have been scanned; I have a version of this program on my computer, and another on my smartphone that allows me to simply snap a picture of a page and instantly hear it read aloud. I occasionally get some sighted assistance from an administrative assistant or attorney colleague for problematic documents, such as those with lots of handwriting (which my software cannot interpret), but thanks to the excellent software I don’t have to do this very often.
My employer has been 100% conscientious and dedicated to providing me whatever accommodations I have needed. I am fortunate to work at an organization whose mission is to advocate for the civil rights of people with disabilities, thus my colleagues are all quite disability-aware and the issue of accommodations is never a contentious one.
Do you disclose your disability to employees, coworkers, or clients? Why or why not?
As my disabilities, particularly blindness, are visible and obvious to anyone who meets me in person, the issue of disclosure is less complex for me than it is for many of my fellow attorneys with disabilities. In cases where I deal with people (opposing counsel, clients, court clerks, etc.) only through phone or e-mail, and where those people have not met me, I generally do not disclose my disability simply because it is usually not relevant.
Why did you decide to become a lawyer? Did your disability have an impact on your decision?
I was drawn to a career in the law because I welcomed the intellectual challenge and opportunities for service that I knew it could afford. Disability was not a factor in my decision to become a lawyer, simply because I did not develop my disabilities until after I graduated law school. My disability journey has helped to steer my legal career in new and exciting directions as my career has progressed.
What type of legal work do you do, and how did you decide on a field?
I am a public interest attorney, focused primarily on protecting the rights and interests of people with disabilities. My work focuses on improving their access to healthcare and medical services. As noted, my entry into this area was shaped largely by my own experiences with disability, and so I am quite fortunate to be able to work in a field that is personally very meaningful to me.
What advice would you give to fellow lawyers with disabilities?
Network, be resourceful, and be prepared to work extremely hard. Identify the adaptive skills you will need in order to cope with your particular disabilities, and then hone those skills to the greatest extent possible. And know that despite the world and the workplace not being an even playing field for people with disabilities, including attorneys, talent and hard work will win you the respect of your peers and clients, so keep at it and always put your best foot forward.
How do you think the legal profession is doing in creating a diverse and inclusive environment for persons with disabilities? What could be improved?
This is a profound and complex question, yet a tremendously important one. The good news is that so many legal organizations and employers have voiced their recognition of the importance of diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Yet fostering diversity and inclusion and turning them into lasting realities remains a greater challenge. Those of us committed to improving opportunities and equal standing for attorneys with disabilities must remain steadfast in our mission for the foreseeable future.
Tell us about your fellowship with Equal Justice Works. You work to “provide education and representation to empower Illinois residents with disabilities to live more independently.” How do you pursue those goals?
I am an Equal Justice Works Fellow and Staff Attorney with Equip For Equality in Chicago, and my fellowship is sponsored by McDermott Will & Emery. Equip For Equality is the federally-mandated, independently-run Protection and Advocacy organization for Illinois, and is dedicated to protecting the rights of people with disabilities throughout the state. I further this mission by working to improve access to healthcare and medical services for Illinois residents with disabilities. My work includes advising and representing individuals with disability-based discrimination complaints against hospital and medical facilities, helping people to navigate the complexities of Medicare, Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act, negotiating with offending medical facilities to improve access for people with disabilities, pursuing administrative relief and/or litigation to address discrimination by healthcare providers, and more.
How did the project come about? Did you have a hand in crafting it?
Equip For Equality had been looking for an opportunity to expand its services and expertise in addressing healthcare issues and access for people with disabilities. From my personal experiences, I know very well the critical importance of quality medical care and rehabilitation services in empowering people with disabilities to live as independently and productively as possible. I brought this project idea to Equip For Equality before presenting it to Equal Justice Works, both of whom recognized the need for a fellowship project of this nature. I was delighted to begin my fellowship in September 2016.
Do you believe this is a project that could be replicated more widely?
Without a doubt. Access to quality healthcare remains an issue of particular importance for people with disabilities, and the need for services of the type my fellowship offers is both vast and growing.
What do you feel you have accomplished in your time at Equip For Equality?
I have worked to identify many of the unmet needs of Illinois residents with disabilities who struggle to access the healthcare services they need to live with dignity and independence. My objective is to help make Equip For Equality a place where people seeking assistance with these types of issues will naturally turn when seeking the help they need.
Once the fellowship is completed, do you anticipate continuing to work in this same field?
I am fortunate to have quite a bit more time left in my fellowship, but I do anticipate continuing to dedicate my legal career to the rights and interests of people with disabilities, and I would certainly welcome the opportunity to keep working on issues of healthcare access for that population. The fellowship has provided me a fascinating and wonderful opportunity to address an acute social need, and I feel as if I am still only at the beginning of the journey.