What is your disability? How does it affect you?
I have multiple mobility and other disabilities, both visible and invisible. They have a cumulative effect and need to be managed both on an individual as well as a holistic basis. I use a wheelchair some of the time, a cane, or a walker, but some days my mobility is little-affected. I can walk for short distances, but anything longer takes planning and mobility assists. My disabilities began when I was about 30. Some of them worsened over time, and others will remain as they are.
What accommodations do you use in the workplace? Have you encountered any obstacles or challenges from your employers, colleagues, or schools in obtaining accommodations?
My current employer has been an 11 out of 10 for accommodations, understanding, and awareness. I was encouraged by my manager to seek accommodations, and the process was virtually painless. Unfortunately, I can’t say I’ve had that experience with other employers. In the 30 years I’ve been an attorney, I have had employers target me (and other disabled employees) in an attempt to drive us out of the workplace. My current accommodations include an ergonomic chair, and mandatory break times during negotiation meetings. Previous accommodations included “work from home” days, but COVID has changed that landscape, allowing a lot more flexibility for work location.
Do you disclose your disability to employers or colleagues? Why or why not?
Since I interviewed in a wheelchair for my current position, it’s a bit difficult not to disclose at least a mobility disability. Prior to my needing mobility devices, and after the experience of a former boss targeting disabled employees, it took a lot of contemplation in order to decide whether it was “worth it” to come out or not. In some jobs I disclosed, and in others I did not. As some of my disabilities are progressive and I often use a mobility device at work, it would be very difficult at this point to not disclose. That said, each person must weigh their own need for accommodation versus the unknown of disclosing. If there aren’t a lot of disabled employees who are visible, it is hard to judge how your particular employer will react to an accommodation request. Yes, there are laws, but it is naïve to believe that those laws will protect you if an employer deems your accommodation request to be unreasonable, or your disability is impeding your performance of what the employer has determined are core functions of your job.
Why did you decide to become a lawyer? Did your disability have an impact on your decision?
My undergraduate degree is in Broadcast Journalism from Boston University. As part of the curriculum, I took a First Amendment course taught by T. Barton Carter. I was hooked. I decided then I wanted to become an attorney. Although I eventually chose technology law, I still am very interested in constitutional law. My disabilities were not very pronounced at the time of my decision, and didn’t start to manifest until my last year in law school.
What type of legal work do you do, and how did you decide on a field?
I currently work in public sector transactions for a large Software as a Service company, but have also had a career long interest in privacy and data security, especially related to government data practices. I had been following the evolution of the Arpanet beginning in the early 80s, and by the time I went to law school in 1988, its commercialization was just beginning. Just before law school, I co-founded the first Internet applications company on the Macintosh platform, and worked there during law school. I was fascinated by governance of what was then becoming today’s Internet, and became involved with what the “domain name wars” and struggles over who would govern the Internet in the mid 90s. I eventually moved over to a more transactional based practice after selling the software company in 1995, but am still highly involved with privacy and security issues as they are integral to most SaaS opportunities.
What advice would you give to fellow disabled lawyers or law students?
I would give disabled lawyers and students the same advice I would give non-disabled lawyers or law students: don’t compromise on your deal-breakers. You are not going to be a fit everywhere. Those places that require all of your time, and limit your availability to the people who mean the most to you, are not where you belong. I’ve been through several periods in the past 30 years where getting a job as an attorney was close to impossible, but you still have to hold onto what is most important to you and not compromise your identity or your principles.
How do you think the legal profession is doing in creating a diverse and inclusive environment for disabled persons? What could be improved?
Some firms are truly taking the lead and getting out there as advocates for their disabled clients, as well as actively recruiting and promoting disabled attorneys. Others not so much. In order to truly be inclusive, corporations and firms alike need to increase outreach to all marginalized groups, but especially the disabled as we make up the smallest marginalized group when you consider all working attorneys who self-reported. Employers need to begin outreach in high schools, providing scholarships and/or advocating for fair prices for higher education, endowments to make college campuses accessible, and scholarships to law schools. Representation is key. I see a lot of employers with codified programs for hiring other marginalized groups, but rarely do I see anything specifically for the disabled. Even in companies as diverse as the one I currently work for, you don’t see a lot of visibly disabled employees. If a job candidate doesn’t see people who look like them, they may have more difficulty picturing themselves in that place, or may not feel they fit in. If a disabled attorney is looking to make a move or looking for their first job out of law school, I suggest they look at both hiring rates and promotion rates for disabled attorneys at that company. Who makes Partner? Who makes Deputy General Counsel? If you don’t see representation there, it may not be the firm for you.
You’re also interested in issues like digital privacy rights, and domain names as speech. What sparked your interest in those issues, and what do you think the wider implications of those issues are?
Back in the days of the Arpanet, communication - not privacy or security - was the reason it existed. Scientists, academic institutions, and government contractors were almost exclusive users of the system. When commercial entities started connecting to “the net,” things began to change, and not always for the better. Around 1995, with the advent of the World Wide Web, domain names in the “dot com” space became highly sought after by corporations wanting an easy-to-use URL. Watching the bullying and “reverse domain name” hijacking that occurred when the registrant to a domain name was being squeezed by a multimillion dollar “non-profit” who wanted that name from a parody site led to my interest in Internet governance. It eventually led me to the Domain Name Rights Coalition that is still advocating for domain name rights for individuals and small businesses. Domain names are speech. See, for example, the “dot sucks” domains, domain names associated with political figures, or names that are themselves advocacy.
I think we have already seen the real-life implications to both general speech and speech through domain names as the Internet has shifted from speech on websites to speech on platforms like Facebook and Twitter. So long as all aspects of speech on the Internet are controlled from monolithic central authorities, the audience’s access is restricted to what the authority wishes to let them see, and often also limited as to how those views, domain name registrations, etc. can be best monetized. Whether those restrictions lead to government intervention remains to be seen.
Future implications of the current approach will ensure that regardless of message content, if that message can’t be monetized by the media giants who are the new gatekeepers, the ideas will likely not gain traction.
You recently spoke on at a panel at a pop culture convention, at which you discussed disabilities in fandoms. How have you gotten involved in the “geek” community, and have you found parallels to the disability community?
I truly think that “geekdom” is something that you don’t really get involved with so much as it finds you and draws you in. The concept of “found family” is spoken of a lot in geek culture, and I think in a lot of ways it’s a natural occurrence that happens when you find a group who is excited about and wants to discuss the same things you do. That said, neither geeks nor disabled people are a monolith. We all have individual needs, require individual accommodations, and are passionate about different aspects of fandom, technology, food, relationships, etc. It’s very human to be unique but also to want to fit in or find a group of like-minded individuals.
I became enveloped in the geek community starting in high school drama club. I think actors are the original geeks. Going forward, I attended my first science fiction convention in 1982 and from there I was “all in.” As my disabilities emerged, I found the people who were most helpful and understanding were again the fannish community. I’m very thankful we found each other.
How do you think pop culture, science fiction, etc. can be used to help broaden and deepen people’s understanding of the experience of being disabled?
I think we need more representation of what it’s really like to be disabled in both science fiction and pop culture. A lot of the representation I’ve seen over the years has been more about the disabled person as either superhero, or as “erasing” their disability through some semi magical or technological methodology. Perhaps science fiction and fantasy belong in that space, since they seem to do the same for able bodied people. However, even in pop culture we don’t see a lot about ordinary people leading ordinary lives with disabilities. As a lot of disabled people know, the day-to-day challenges are enough drama for most of us. I think media in general would be better off through inclusion of all, with authentic representation of disability, including people whose mobility aids are denied. We see stories of fundraisers or high school robotics teams building wheelchairs to help a few, but we don’t see the daily struggles of people trying to go to work every day, trying to care for disabled family members and meet their obligations in the workplace, struggling to get by on the pittance paid by Social Security or worse, being denied time and time again for assistance. That’s where the real stories are. We, as lawyers, have a unique platform and responsibility to advocate for ourselves, as well as for those with less privilege and greater challenges than we have.