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May 20, 2019

Benjamin Reiser

Law Student Spotlight: Benjamin M. Reiser

First-Year Student, Fordham University School of Law

What is your disability? How does it affect you as a law student?

I was born with severe-to-profound bilateral sensorineural hearing loss.  Audiologists said I would never develop meaningful, intelligible speech, and recommended a school for the deaf.

I was the first infant worldwide to use digitally programmable hearing aids.  Today, I only wear a hearing aid in my right ear. Assistive technology makes no difference for my left ear in which I have so little hearing.

Due to amazing technology, my supportive family, and my commitment to never let my disability define me, my hearing impairment does not keep me from doing too much as a law student.  Although listening to others speak in the classroom requires more focus and effort, I remain committed to ensuring that I receive and absorb all the information I can to get the best education possible.

What accommodations do you use at school or in the workplace? Have you encountered any obstacles or challenges from your employers, colleagues, or school in obtaining accommodations?

I am immensely grateful to have attended schools that have supported access to accommodations for my hearing impairment.

Assistive technology has made all the difference in my life, including my education.  At the start of each class, my professors clip a small microphone (Phonak) to their shirts that wirelessly transmits their voice to my hearing aid.  Part of what makes a legal education so wonderful is being able to listen to a diverse array of opinions about and interpretations of the law.  When a professor repeats what a student has said, whether the student is across the classroom or sitting next to me, it’s much easier for me to listen and process the comment.

Do you disclose your disability to employers or colleagues?  Why or why not?

I typically don’t disclose my disability, although I’m always willing to chat about it if circumstances arise that affect my ability to hear, or someone notices my hearing aid.  After spending much of my childhood working with speech and language pathologists to achieve normal speech quality and personally overcoming the challenges presented by my hearing impairment, I pride myself on not allowing my disability to define me.

Why did you decide to become a lawyer? Did your disability influence your decision?

I've wanted to be a lawyer since the eighth grade.  That year, my social studies class held a mock trial in a case from the Civil Rights Movement.  Preparing for the trial—poring over pieces of evidence, developing arguments and rebuttals, practicing how best to articulate my client’s interests—was one of those life moments when everything just clicked.  It was profoundly rewarding to think critically about right and wrong and the function of this country’s adjudication systems.

I think a part of me was inspired to become a lawyer to prove that I could overcome the “limits” resulting from my hearing impairment. Despite my disability, I have always been resolute in my aspiration to learn how to use language meaningfully and appropriately, and to sound like my family and friends.  Ironically, the communication skills that were expected to be my greatest weaknesses became my very strengths, and are valuable skills for a successful law career.

What type of legal work will you do, and how did you decide on that field?

I am deeply interested in entertainment law, more specifically within the commercial theatre industry in New York City (a.k.a. Broadway). While attending Georgetown University as a double-major in Government and American Studies, I interned on Capitol Hill in Congress for two years, but found that legislative and constituent work wasn’t as personally rewarding and fulfilling as I thought it would be.

During my sophomore year, I took a class on the history of the Broadway musical. I grew up adoring musical theatre, and my fondest memories include seeing shows with my family and friends. I recognized that the field of entertainment law would allow me to combine my skills in reading, writing, and policy with my passion for theatre.  Theatre lawyers serve as the critical nexus in moving a theatrical production from concept to reality.  They are the glue that holds together the creative enterprise of theatre, being integral to the nitty-gritty, behind-the-scenes work: drafting and negotiating contracts, working within the frameworks of intellectual property and copyright law, and ensuring that each layer of rights is properly enforced.  The opportunity to support the theatre people who inspire me to pursue this professional avenue deeply excites me.   

What advice would you give to fellow lawyers or law students with disabilities?

The obstacles you face are no match to resilience and hard work.  Be relentless; seek out the best, latest, most accommodating technology; and be an assertive advocate for the access you require. The sooner you commit to not letting your disability get in the way of your education, the more doors will open.  

Though I have only been a law student for one semester, I realize how breathtaking, majestic, and all-encompassing the American legal system is.  If you have any desire to pursue a path in law, don’t let your disability get in your way.