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September 01, 2009

September 2009: Mildred A. Rivera-Rau, Esq.

Blind Latina employment lawyer helps promote diversity in the federal workforce.

With the recent rise of Sonia Sotomayor to the United States Supreme Court, Mildred A. Rivera-Rau, Esq. has a great deal of which to be proud. Just like Justice Sotomayor, Millie is a Puerto Rican woman with a disability who works for the federal government. There are important differences, however, as Millie makes her impact via the federal government as an award-winning Attorney Advisor for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Washington, DC.

Millie was born legally blind with 20/200 vision in both eyes. After spending some of her high school years in Puerto Rico, she attended Cornell University and then the University of Pennsylvania School of Law. Shortly after taking the bar exam in 1990, she was diagnosed with a brain disorder that severely impacts her mood without medication. For the first two years of her career she worked in a large San Francisco law firm practicing labor and employment law. She was then recruited by the EEOC and worked as a Trial Attorney in Baltimore for 12 years before being asked to serve as a Special Assistant to Former EEOC Chair Cari M. Dominguez.

During her career, she received awards from the EEOC for work on a class action sexual harassment lawsuit, EEOC disability initiatives, and the Commission’s Spanish-language website, as well as an award from the Maryland affiliate of the National Federation of the Blind for her outstanding volunteer activities with blind youth. Millie recently served a three-year term as a Commissioner for the ABA Commission on Mental and Physical Disability Law.

Currently, Millie leads a team of EEO Analysts that review federal agencies’ equal employment opportunity programs for compliance and provide technical assistance. She also analyzes statistics regarding workforce composition with regard to gender, race, national origin, and disability status. Basically, she and her team make sure that federal entities have the programs and policies in place to ensure a barrier-free workforce. At work she accommodates her disability with a reader and ZoomText, a software program that enlarges text and serves as an audible screen reader. She also is permitted to work from home when necessary.

Becoming an employment lawyer was not a certainty. Before her first encounter with lawyers in a courtroom during college, Millie did not think she could be an attorney. “After watching them litigate, I discovered that lawyers are just regular people doing regular things. I honestly thought ‘Hey, I can do that!’” she noted, “And the same thing applies to individuals with disabilities: we are just regular people who are capable of doing regular things. Sometimes people have to simply get past personal preconceived notions to appreciate the opportunities that are out there.”

When comparing her two roles at the EEOC, litigation and agency oversight, Millie finds they each have their own unique benefits, whether for her or the diversity movement. “Litigation was more fulfilling for me, because I was able to see the result after the proceedings,” she stated, “but on the other hand, agency oversight has the ability to affect more people across a broader spectrum.” Either way, Millie says she has her dream job.