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November 01, 2009

November 2009: Howard A. Rosenblum, Esq.

Attorney discusses deaf community, its needs, and how the legal community can help.

If you were in New York City’s Times Square in November, you may have seen Howard A. Rosenblum, Esq. No, he doesn’t work at a Manhattan law firm; but for the entire month he is appearing in a public service ad for the American Association of People with Disabilities on a giant screen in this famous quarter of the city (see: Howard, a deaf attorney and advocate for those with disabilities, was more than pleased to help raise awareness for this important organization.

Howard is a graduate of the Chicago-Kent College of Law. He has been profoundly deaf since the age of two, after contracting meningitis and a severe fever. At the age of twelve, he met one of the few deaf attorneys in America at the time. That encounter helped him realize that the lack of hearing was not a barrier to practicing law. He is currently a senior attorney at Equip for Equality, a non-profit disability rights advocacy organization in Chicago, Illinois. He handles disability rights litigation under the Americans with Disabilities Act and other federal and state laws. When he needs to communicate with other attorneys in the course of a case, he has a range of accommodations available to him including a sign language interpreter, a videophone, and/or a video relay service (a service with operator who can sign to Howard and talk with the other party).

Howard took some time to explain the interesting dynamics between the deaf community, the disability community, and the legal profession. He first noted that for most of the twentieth century, at any given time, you could count the number of deaf lawyer in America on one hand. When he graduated from law school seventeen years ago, there was only a handful. “Now there are a couple hundred of deaf and hard of hearing attorneys in the country, thanks to laws that mandated better education for children with disabilities as well as access to colleges and law schools.” Howard stated, “along with this increase in numbers came an increase in communication: with tools like the internet especially with e-mails and instant messaging, we have all been able to keep in touch and support one another. It also helps that the deaf legal community, in general, is unified.” Not only does this tight-knit group advance the legal rights of the deaf and hard of hearing, but it is also diverse and consists of deaf attorneys who practice in a variety of legal fields. The same internet tools have helped remove many communication barriers for deaf and hard of hearing people in general to work and do business with everyone else.

Several years ago Howard co-founded the Midwest Center on Law and the Deaf ( MCLD), a non-profit that fosters cooperation between the legal community and the deaf community so those who are deaf and hard of hearing have access to the legal system. For example, the MCLD refers deaf and hard of hearing consumers to lawyers who are willing to take on their cases and ensure communication access. MCLD also trains lawyers and informs them of their legal obligations for providing communication access for deaf clients. Going one step further, Howard believes it is necessary for state bars across the nation to create a “Communication Access Fund” or “CAF.” The CAF would be supported by attorney licensing fees to bridge the communication gap between lawyers and deaf clients. The fund could be tapped by either the lawyer or a deaf individual who needs a communication accommodation to communicate with one another. This process would eliminate the upfront difficulty that deaf individuals often experience when seeking legal representation and asking for communication access at that time. “A good number of attorneys give up on the deaf community because they either don’t have the funds to provide proper accommodations, don’t believe they have an obligation to offer an accommodation, or they are tired of continuously footing the bill while other firms refuse to pay.” Howard observed, “Having a central and well-funded state source for communication accommodations will help ensure that the deaf community is not underserved by the legal community.”