May 01, 2011

May 2011: Wendy K. Akbar, Esq.

Attorney with severe-to-profound hearing loss establishes identity and career notwithstanding disability.

Lawyers with disabilities—and most individuals with disabilities, for that matter—often fall along a remarkable continuum. On one end are those individuals who lean toward embracing their impairment as part of their personal identity, and use this identity to forge their path through life. On the other end are those who do not view their disability as part of their identity, but attempt to defy it by using the challenge it poses to drive their ambition and prove to others their resilience and mettle. Where one falls on the continuum is a matter of personal choice, but Wendy K. Akbar, a senior associate at Quarles & Brady LLP of Phoenix, Arizona, falls squarely into the latter category.

Wendy, a graduate of The University of Pennsylvania School of Law, was diagnosed with a severe-to-profound hearing loss at the age of four. She taught herself to lip-read as a toddler, which defied an earlier diagnosis, and now uses a combination of hearing aids and lip-reading. Currently, for accommodations she favors videoconferencing, CART/Real-Time transcription services, and personal meetings in lieu of phone calls -- even going out of her way to meet local clients at no extra expense rather than have a long phone discussion. She also uses a TTY phone when needed.

As a senior associate, Wendy represents clients in all aspects of complex commercial litigation with a focus on intellectual property, particularly patent, trademark, trade secret and copyright litigation along with pre-litigation and transactional advice concerning intellectual property issues. She was recognized as the ATHENA Young Professional of 2009 by the Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce and was recently named a member of Phoenix Business Magazine’s “Forty Under 40” 2011 class. In her spare time, she serves as Chair of the Arizona State Bar Committee for Persons with Disabilities in the Legal Profession, and is a member of the Board for both the Arizona Science and Engineering Fair and the Arizona Center for Disability Law. She is also considered a rising expert on record retention and electronic discovery, recently publishing articles on the subject in the ABA's Family Advocate magazine, the Journal of Internet Law, and the Quarles & Brady e-discovery "blawg" (http://ediscovery.quarles.com).

While Wendy acknowledges that her hearing loss made her who she is in many ways, she does not view it as a part of her person such as her height or hair color. “Initially, I equate my identity with my intelligence and achievements,” she stated. “I try to stay away from being labeled 'that hearing-impaired attorney.' Of course, this doesn’t mean my disability did not play an important part in my life. I likely wouldn’t have been motivated to work so hard to get where I am if there weren’t so many obstacles in the way.” Wendy’s outlook grew from the way she viewed herself as a child. She saw her hearing impairment in the same vein as her younger brother’s more typical eyesight problems, which were considered "cured" with glasses.

When it came time to choose a career in the law, Wendy gravitated towards the creative and scientific topics found in intellectual property law, despite that area being arguably male-dominated and vocal and listening-intensive. “When it comes to choosing an area of the law in which to develop expertise,” Wendy suggested, “a person—whether with a disability or without—needs to be enthusiastic about who they are and what they want to do. They should find an issue that creates a spark in them—whether or not it has to do with their disability—and use that passion to create a positive impression with others"

If you want to learn more about Wendy and her unique story, along with the stories of other attorneys with disabilities, see the ABA publication, Lawyers, Lead On: Lawyers with Disabilities Share their Insights.