The legal profession plays a crucial role in upholding justice and ensuring equal access to legal representation for all individuals. However, for lawyers with disabilities, challenges can hinder their ability to fully participate and thrive in the field. Fortunately, advancements in assistive technology have created new possibilities, empowering lawyers with disabilities to overcome barriers and practice law with confidence and efficiency. A disability is defined as any condition of the body or mind (impairment) that makes it more difficult for someone with the condition to do certain activities and interact with the world around them. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). around one in four adults have a disability of some form, whether related to mobility, cognition, independent living, hearing, vision, or self-care. Anyone living with a disability can face attitudinal barriers, communication barriers, physical barriers, and more. The CDC has also found that, in 2017, only 35.5 percent of people aged 18 to 64 years with disabilities were employed.
In recent years, we have seen a growing emphasis on inclusivity and accessibility in the legal profession. This article explores the remarkable potential of assistive technology in supporting lawyers with disabilities, enabling them to work in their profession and contribute to a more inclusive legal landscape. If you or someone you know has a disability, you may find that this article has some helpful tools. There is a wide variety of disabilities and a variety of tools to assist people with them; we have not personally used all these tools in our law practices. Our goal is to inform you of the tools available that may help should you or someone you know be in need. It is important to note that while we, the authors, have some of these disabilities, we do not have all of them and do not have first-hand experience using some of these tools in our practices.
According to the National Institutes of Health, around 15 percent of American adults aged 18 and over report some form of trouble hearing. Around 2 percent of adults aged 45 to 54 have disabling hearing loss. That rate increases to 8.5 percent for adults aged 55 to 64. Nearly 25 percent of those aged 65 to 74 and 50 percent of those who are 75 and older have disabling hearing loss. Hearing loss tends to disrupt communication and can trigger significant levels of distress, including embarrassment and self-criticism when you have difficulty understanding others.
There are tools that can help you function with hearing loss around the office. For starters, in addition to traditional hearing aids, there are less-expensive assistive listening devices (ALDs), personal technologies that can help you communicate in one-on-one conversations. There are five types of ALDs:
- Audio induction loop (also called a hearing loop)
- FM system
- Infrared system
- Personal amplified system
- Bluetooth systems
You may want to take time to get to know each type and see which one works best for you. When it comes to telephones, look for one that is compatible with a hearing aid if you use a hearing aid. Also, check out the Internet Protocol Captioned Telephone Service (IP CTS). IP CTS will need a dedicated line and a captioned telephone. Once the line is installed, many services are provided free of cost.
When it comes to communicating, encourage written memos, summaries of discussions, and emails to ensure you and your colleagues are on the same page. Similarly, try to request meeting agendas in advance and meeting summaries or notes from someone after the meeting takes place.
You can also look for Communication Access Real-time Translation (CART) service. CART providers convert spoken English into a printed English format. A CART writer transcribes every word that is spoken and displays it on a laptop. This can also be projected onto a screen. A transcript can be provided afterward. In 2002, the American Judges Foundation and the National Court Reporters Foundation put together model guidelines for CART in the courtroom. The people who can benefit from the use of a CART provider include litigants, jurors, judges, attorneys, witnesses, or other participants. The CART writer will have a code of ethics that demands confidentiality.
Another tool, the caption telephone, connects to your telephone line and provides a printout on the display of the conversation. This can prove particularly helpful for people with a hearing deficit that impairs the standard use of a telephone.
According to the CDC, around 12 million people aged 40 and over in the United States have some form of vision impairment, including 1 million people who are blind, 3 million people who have vision impairment after correction, and 8 million who have vision impairment due to uncorrected refractive error, such as myopia, hyperopia, astigmatism, and presbyopia. Myopia, also known as nearsightedness, refers to light focusing in front of the retina, causing distant objects to look blurry. Hyperopia, also known as farsightedness, is caused if the cornea in the front of the eye is too curved and light does not focus correctly, making closer objects appear out of focus. Astigmatism refers to an irregularly curved lens and often occurs with hyperopia and myopia. And finally, presbyopia is age-related and occurs when the lens loses the flexibility to change, making it hard to focus on close objects.
Uncorrected refractive error is the most common cause of vision impairment and the second-leading cause of blindness worldwide. Most of the population will use glasses, contact lenses, or surgery to correct refractive errors. Eyeglasses are the most common and simple solution. An eye care professional can measure you for a pair of eyeglasses for effective correction. Contact lenses are a less common but still popular treatment for correcting refractive errors. They work by placing an artificial lens on the film of tears covering the eye’s surface. Like eyeglasses, you will need to have your contact lenses fitted by an eye care professional. Corrective surgery is available and may be necessary for some patients. Corrective surgery options include refractive (laser) surgery and intraocular lens (IOL) surgery.
For the more severely impaired or legally blind, assistive technologies can improve your workplace experience, including:
- screen-reader software,
- braille notetakers,
- refreshable braille displays, and more.
Job Access with Speech (JAWS), from Freedom Scientific, is the world’s most popular screen-reader software. Screen-reader software enables a blind or visually impaired user to read the text displayed on the computer screen with a speech synthesizer or braille display. JAWS captures information as it travels to the screen and outputs it in synthetic speech. So, for example, if you are on the desktop screen of a Windows PC, the JAWS software can read the icons out loud as you move your mouse around. If you spend a significant amount of time in Microsoft Outlook reviewing and responding to emails, JAWS works seamlessly with the email communication software. If you have to learn how to use screen-reader software later in life, consider taking an online course to get up to speed with it faster.
Braille notetakers and braille displays appear similar but have different functionality. Both have a refreshable braille display. Some will feature a Perkins-style keyboard or a Qwerty keyboard. The Perkins-style keyboard has keys corresponding to each of the six dots of the braille code, along with a space key, a backspace key, and a line space key. Braille notetakers, such as the BrailleNote Touch Plus 32 ($5,795) or the BrailleSense 6 ($5,795), are stand-alone devices, meaning you do not have to connect them to an external device (such as a computer or tablet), and you do not need to use a screen reader in conjunction with them in order to use all of their features.
Refreshable Braille Displays
A braille display, such as the Brailliant BI 40X ($3,695), connects to an external device. You put the device in terminal mode, and in that mode, it will show you what is displayed on your external device (your computer, phone, or tablet). This means you will need to access a screen reader on the device for the display to work.
Which device works best for you will depend on your situation. In a workplace setting where you need to access a computer, you will likely need the braille display to interact with it, as most law offices do not run their practice solely from a smartphone or tablet.
Physical disabilities, such as mobility impairments, can present substantial challenges in a profession that demands a significant amount of movement. Assistive technology has emerged as a powerful ally in leveling the playing field for lawyers with mobility-related disabilities. One of the primary concerns for lawyers with mobility-related disabilities is physical accessibility in their workplaces and courtrooms. Assistive technology offers solutions that improve accessibility and mobility. For instance, wheelchair ramps, elevators, and adjustable desks create a barrier-free environment. Additionally, adaptive seating and ergonomic tools ensure comfort and reduce strain during long hours of work. Mobile devices equipped with specialized apps enable lawyers to move freely while accessing legal databases, documents, and communication tools. These technologies enable lawyers to attend meetings, visit clients, and engage in courtroom proceedings, notwithstanding their physical limitations.
Wheelchairs and Power Chairs
Wheelchairs and power chairs are fundamental mobility devices for individuals with limited mobility. These devices come in various designs and configurations tailored to specific needs. Manual wheelchairs offer flexibility and maneuverability, enabling lawyers to navigate different terrains with relative ease. Power chairs, on the other hand, provide enhanced mobility and independence through motorized features, allowing lawyers to move effortlessly in their workplace and beyond. There is a significant weight difference between a manual wheelchair and a power wheelchair, especially given the battery needed to power it.
Scooters and Electric Bicycles
Scooters and electric bicycles offer alternative options for lawyers with a mobility impairment seeking increased mobility. Three-wheeled scooters provide stability and maneuverability, making them suitable for indoor and outdoor use. They are compact, lightweight, and easily transportable, ideal for lawyers who need a portable mobility solution. Electric bicycles offer similar benefits with added assistance from electric motors, allowing less impaired mobility-limited lawyers to cover longer distances comfortably and efficiently.
Mobility scooters have evolved into highly versatile devices designed for individuals with mobility impairments. These scooters feature a stable platform, handlebars or a tiller for steering, and a comfortable seat. With varying speed settings, they enable lawyers with a mobility impairment to travel around their workplace, the courthouse, or even between different locations without relying on external assistance. Mobility scooters can be an excellent option for lawyers with limited upper-body strength or individuals who find traditional wheelchairs less suitable for their specific needs.
Stairlifts and Elevators
For lawyers with a mobility impairment working in multilevel buildings, stairlifts and elevators function as assistive devices. Stairlifts provide a safe and efficient way to navigate staircases by securely transporting individuals up and down the steps. These devices have proven themselves particularly useful for lawyers who may have difficulty with stairs due to physical limitations. Elevators, meanwhile, offer accessibility to different floors in a building, ensuring that disabled lawyers can access courtrooms, meeting rooms, and offices.
Communication Aids and Assistive Technology
Communication aids and assistive technology can also play a crucial role in empowering disabled lawyers. Speech recognition software and voice-to-text transcription devices assist individuals with limited mobility in their hands. These technologies enable lawyers to efficiently draft legal documents, conduct research, and communicate with clients and colleagues. Additionally, ergonomic keyboards, adjustable desks, and specialized computer mice contribute to a comfortable and accessible workspace, promoting productivity and reducing physical strain.
Legal Research and Document Management
Legal professionals heavily rely on research and document management to build their cases. Assistive technology provides lawyers with disabilities the means to access legal resources and manage documents effectively. Text-to-speech software converts written materials into audio format, enabling lawyers to review legal texts, scholarly articles, and case law efficiently. Optical character recognition (OCR) technology facilitates the conversion of printed documents into editable digital formats, enabling lawyers to search, annotate, and manage documents electronically. Cloud-based document management systems ensure secure storage and easy retrieval of files, fostering organization and easier accessibility than physical files.
Participating in courtroom proceedings poses unique challenges for lawyers with mobility-related disabilities. Assistive technology offers solutions that enhance accessibility and facilitate participation. For example, remote testimony technology allows witnesses to provide testimony via videoconferencing, reducing the need for physical presence. Courtroom multimedia systems can incorporate captioning and real-time transcription services, ensuring equal access to auditory information. Wheelchairs, power chairs, and mobility scooters make it easier for the mobility-disabled attorney to move around the courtroom as necessary or desired. By implementing these technologies, legal systems can promote inclusivity and accommodate the needs of lawyers with mobility-related disabilities.
Assistive technology has revolutionized the legal profession by empowering lawyers with disabilities to practice law with independence and effectiveness. From enhancing accessibility and mobility in work environments to facilitating communication, research, and document management, assistive technology offers a range of innovative solutions. By embracing these technologies, legal institutions can create a more inclusive and diverse legal community, ensuring equal opportunities for all legal professionals.
(For examples of how one lawyer with disabilities has combined a variety of technological tools and work strategies to aid in her practice of law, see the article “Practicing Law as an Attorney with a Disability: The Hill Was Not Too Steep to Climb” by Joy Moonan on page 17 of this issue of GPSolo.)