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September 01, 2012

September 2012: Michael J. Wasser

New York City Corporation Counsel Attorney shows all that inclusion works

Assistant Corporation Counsel Michael J. Wasser has spent thirteen years working for the New York City Law Department, Office of the Corporation Counsel.  This is a far cry from his childhood dreams of becoming the next Jacques Cousteau, and of Jedi Knighthood.  Wasser eventually had to balance these aspirations against the reality of his progressive muscular dystrophy.  “Knowing that a SCUBA motorized wheelchair was almost as unrealistic as being trained by Yoda, and understanding that my diagnosis of muscular dystrophy meant that I would become functionally quadriplegic, I accepted the fact that a career as an attorney would be my best choice.”  So, he ultimately attended and graduated from Brooklyn Law School.

Wasser remembers being among the first students to be fully mainstreamed in New York City public schools.  “My decision that, due to my disability, a career as an attorney would be ideal did not deter me from pursing my interests in science, which continued through high school, where I was the only student with a disability in the advanced science program.”  He went on to attend Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, being the only student with a disability in the Scholars Program, and graduated Phi Beta Kappa and Magna Cum Laude.  Wasser applied to and was accepted into law school during his senior year.  “As a person with a disability, one that I have had since birth, I viewed my legal education and future career as a chance to show all doubters and ableists, like the ones I encountered in my life, that inclusion works.  I find that even now, me just being at the table opens doors and minds.”

Today, Wasser spends his time in the Tax and Bankruptcy Litigation Division, representing the Mayor of the City of New York, its elected officials, the City, and all its agencies.  He specializes in transactional real estate and tax certiorari litigation, and serves as title clearance officer in eminent domain matters.  Among his numerous accomplishments, Wasser represented the City in what may have been the only sale of an active government-owned cemetery and worked on a real estate closing involving Yankee Stadium.  He is currently preparing an oral argument for a tax exemption case of first impression.

Wasser, in part, credits his success as a lawyer to his disability.  “My need to use technology because of my disability has made me very knowledgeable and proficient at incorporating technology into my work.  Growing up with a disability made me learn how to problem solve, often in creative ways.  I had to find alternatives and advocate for myself before most could grasp the concept."

Advancements in technology and minor adjustments in his workspace allow Wasser to do his job independently and efficiently.  “[O]ne does not need much, or any, physical ability to be an attorney.  As the practice of law becomes more and more reliant on technology, people with disabilities, especially those with severe physical limitations will have more opportunities.” 

Wasser is functionally a quadriplegic, with only limited use of his hands.  “If someone like me, who lacks the ability to lift a tissue to my nose can have a career as an attorney” says Wasser, “then our profession can accommodate anyone with any level of physical disability.”  Support staff scan the documents he needs to review.  And, he keeps all of his files in his Division’s file room so he has more space in his office to maneuver his wheelchair.  However, Wasser points out that “as a society, we have a lot of work to do in removing barriers.  Major issues in public transportation, housing, healthcare, public accommodation, benefit preservation, and education exist that adversely affect” employment opportunities for people with disabilities.

When he’s not negotiating or litigating, Wasser spends his time on his office’s Diversity Committee for Attorney Recruitment and Retention and Community Service Committee.  He also provides advice and insight to other attorneys with disabilities and the Law Department on issues of access and reasonable accommodation.  In 2005, Wasser received the Muscular Dystrophy Association’s National Personal Achievement Award.

Recently, he spearheaded his office’s effort to foster the inclusion of lawyers with disabilities in the legal profession.  Marking the twenty-second anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Corporation Counsel Michael A. Cardozo, the Law Department’s chief, signed the ABA Commission on Disability Rights’ Pledge for Change.

Cardozo, Wasser, and their Diversity Committee colleagues held a ceremony on July 26 to celebrate the signing.  Their office is the first governmental law office to become a Pledge signatory.  “We are immensely proud of Michael Wasser and his efforts,” noted Corporation Counsel Cardozo.  “He has inspired those around him and enlightened the legal community about the need to extend opportunities to those with disabilities.”  Wasser also participates in the Commission’s National Mentor Program.  “Even with a supportive family reminding me that I had the same rights and was entitled to the same expectations as everyone else, at times, it was a lonely road.  As a child, it would have been immeasurably encouraging to have met an attorney with a disability who had experienced what I was going through.  That is why I feel it is my duty to support initiatives that seek to assist those with disabilities enter the practice of law, and a privilege to have that opportunity.”