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January 01, 2011

January 2011: Kathleen Hagen, Esq.

Blind attorney takes circuitous path to the practice of law.

While some lawyers knew their professional path before their undergraduate studies, other lawyers reach the practice of law by exploring other professions first, following paths with twists and turns.   Kathleen Hagen took her own winding path, not beginning law school until she was 34 years old.

Kathy’s interesting path to the legal profession began after receiving a Bachelor and Master’s of music degrees. She was a music therapist and worked with people with mental disabilities, teaching music classes at a settlement house in a public housing project.  In 1981 she got a job as an investigator with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, where she investigated charges of discrimination, usually against employers.  She graduated from William Mitchell College of Law and since 1994 she has been a staff attorney for the Minnesota Disability Law Center, the state’s protection and advocacy program. Now age 60, she still helps people with disabilities attain rehabilitation services and remove barriers to employment.

Kathleen, congenitally blind, grew up with Braille as her means of reading.  In college and beyond, she has used a variety of other resources which have increasingly become available to blind professionals, such as speech software, scanning software, and sometimes still an assistant to read files. 

Kathleen weighs in on the controversy of teaching Braille to blind students in favor of having them at least exposed to Braille.  “The last statistic I heard,” she said, “is that close to 90 percent of blind students graduating from high school can’t read Braille, and can’t even use it for utilitarian purposes such as labeling their files.  In law school I was not provided materials in Braille, but I received the material on cassette tape, and then I briefed the cases in Braille.” When asked whether she believes a blind lawyer can make it through school and practice law without knowing Braille, her answer is that she doesn’t think it’s impossible—and has even known some people who have done it—but it presents a challenge.  “Even with all the technological advancements for the blind today, there is still a need to retain information once we receive it, and such retention is vital for lawyers,” she stated, “Therefore, it is important that those who are blind find a way to properly command the information they receive.  In my opinion, Braille is the most efficient method of meeting this need.”

Kathleen retained her job with the state on a part-time basis while attending law school.  She was asked whether she would advise other students with disabilities to follow this path.  “Keeping my part-time job was a challenge, and between that and going to law school I was always tired during those years,” she remembered, “However, as a disabled woman, I knew it was harder to find a job if you weren’t working.  I was concerned about losing self confidence as I knew it was always harder for people with disabilities, particularly visible ones, to become employed, so I thought the challenge was worth it.” Kathleen did find advantages to the part-time program, however: “I went to what is known as a commuter law school, meaning no one lived there.  Many of us were older and several students had jobs. This environment allowed us all to bounce real-life experiences off one other and the teachers in class.” 

If you want to learn more about Kathleen Hagen and her unique story, along with the stories of other attorneys with disabilities, more can be found in the upcoming ABA publication, Lawyers, Lead On: Lawyers with Disabilities Share their Insights (forthcoming March, 2011).