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Defining Moments: Scott C. LaBarre

Melanie Bragg


  • From winning cases to negotiating world treaties, Scott C. LaBarre was a zealous advocate, and his blindness did not limit him.
  • National Federation of the Blind provided role models, resources, and leadership opportunities.
  • Attending law school with a visual impairment is not an issue due to learning adaptive techniques to eliminate barriers.
  • Persons with a disability should be viewed based on their accomplishments and personalities not due to their disability.
Defining Moments: Scott C. LaBarre
Scott T. Baxter via Getty Images

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As the members of Scott’s family, his extended family in the National Federation of the Blind and its Colorado chapter, his friends in the ABA, and those of us in GPSolo grieve his recent passing, I want to take the opportunity to reprint his story that was published in Defining Moments: Insights into the Lawyer’s Soul for you.

His Celebration of Life service was in Denver, Colorado, last weekend. A group of us from GPSolo attended, and we were all inspired by the stories we heard from his peers about how hard he worked to make a difference in the lives of those who have disabilities. None of it surprised us, it’s just that we were not all fully aware of the depth and breadth of what he had accomplished to really make a difference for people with disabilities in his much too short life. From winning cases to negotiating world treaties, Scott was a zealous advocate, and he never let his own blindness limit him. He truly lived the principle he chose as his LEAD line: Your Possibilities Are Limitless.

The governor of Colorado proclaimed January 21, 2023, to be Scott C. LaBarre Day, which is a huge honor. Those of us who were there were reminded to make sure and talk to each other more, to listen more, and to tell each other how much we love each other more. It was sobering yet inspiring. The ballroom was opened up afterward and was filled with both seeing and blind people enjoying the food and cocktail party with such joy, ease, and appreciation for Scott’s life well-lived.

We all know that his legacy will continue to live on, and those of us in GPSolo who love him dearly have committed ourselves to delve deeper into the issues he was passionate about and making sure we are doing everything we can to bring the issues faced by people with disabilities to the forefront.

Here is what Scott shared with me, reprinted with permission:

Scott was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, and grew up in Woodbury, Minnesota. His life embodies the principle of determination because he has overcome the disability of being blind as a lawyer and has never let that stop him from moving forward or achieving his goals. He says, “I’ve always looked up to my dad. He has always been a great supporter of mine, and he, along with my mom, always wanted to make sure that we children had more opportunities than they had. Neither of my parents has anything beyond a high school diploma, and they have always had to work very hard to earn middle-income status.”

Margins were lean in Scott’s early years, and his father did most of the work around the house. Scott remembers getting to help him and his friends pour the concrete for the foundation. Scott’s father instilled in him the principle of being responsible for his own life. He says, “I learned to just get out there when I had an idea, a dream, or an ambition and go for it, even though it appeared the odds were stacked against me.” Scott’s mom was a secretary and then took off to be a stay-at-home mom when he was young. He remembers her teaching him to read and how much he loved reading—especially books about aviation and space travel. He wanted to be a pilot.

There was nothing remarkable about his health as a young child. He was just a normal boy. But in the fourth grade, he contracted retinitis uveitis and had to learn to deal with and adjust to the new reality of being blind. He had a bunch of surgeries on his left eye, and then after enduring a lot of pain, he lost it. At that time, he thought he still had his right eye.

He got special tutoring to catch up in school from a favorite teacher named Mr. Hebzenski. Scott says, “All the parents thought he was a terrible teacher because he wasn’t very polished. I remember he was extremely dedicated. This was an important life lesson to me because I remember people being very judgmental of Mr. Hebzenski just because he had this rough facade and acted tough, uncouth, and blue-collar. That turned a lot of people off, and they thought he wasn’t a good teacher, but it taught me that you should never underestimate people. You should never give great weight to what the outside packaging is, and you should never be quick to judge anybody else. I didn’t think of it in those terms when I was nine years old, but it was an important lesson to me because if it had not been for him, I would have been delayed a year and maybe I would have never had the passion to apply myself in respect to schooling.”

A year later, in fifth grade, his other eye started giving him problems, and the virus was back. He had to stay in the hospital for weeks in Baltimore to get testing to see if they could save his other eye. Scott remembers the spinal tap as the worst. He left Johns Hopkins on a “wing and a prayer,” and they tried some new drugs, but they did not work. He got the bad news that he was going to lose his right eye, too. The doctor finally told him he had to get used to the fact that he was going to be blind.

Scott never wanted his blindness to limit him. He remembers coming home from the hospital, and his mother set a bowl of lasagna down in front of him. He says, “I thought to myself, ‘Am I helpless all of a sudden? What is this? You don’t eat lasagna out of a bowl.’ Well, my mom never did that again because she realized that she should not treat me any differently. The first night was like somebody died in our family. Everybody was just totally depressed. I think the reason I was so scared and overwhelmed is because the portrait of blindness that I had as a child that was reinforced by shows like Sesame Street and popular media was that blind people were the ones that stood on street corners and sold pencils and begged for charity. The typical blind person had a guide dog and dark sunglasses. That was my image of blindness.”

Scott was supposed to be a pilot. And he had talent as an artist. He drew Star Wars pictures. And now he realized he could not do any of that anymore. He says, “After the first initial blow, my parents realized that life had to get back to normal, a new normal, perhaps, but it had to get back to normal. They contacted the people they needed to contact, and I went right back to school. I started learning braille immediately. They put a white cane into my hands. They did so because I pretty much lost almost all of my vision. I consider myself lucky that I went blind that way. Starting in the 1970s Congress said you need to give blind kids mainstream education. You need to bring the special educational elements into the classroom—this concept of ‘full inclusion.’ I was in the first couple of years of that change in education. They kept me at Royal Oaks Elementary with my peers that I had been going through school with ever since kindergarten. What I ended up doing is spending an hour or two a day with this vision teacher, learning braille, learning adaptive techniques, learning whatever it was I needed to learn. The reason I say I am lucky about the way I went blind is I, as an advocate and somebody deeply involved in the blindness field now, have observed the great loss of many years by people who live in the ‘netherworld.’”

The most amazing thing about Scott was that while he underachieved in his first few years of elementary school, going blind really turned him around. He says, “When I went blind, I realized something had to change. I realized that people were going to regard me as something less than or something broken. I knew I needed to start trying a lot harder, and I did. From that fifth-grade year on, I was always an A student.”

Scott attended Saint John’s University in Minnesota, which is a small private Catholic liberal arts school. He won a scholarship to college from the National Federation of the Blind. He remembers, “I thought I was a pretty exceptional, hotshot blind guy. I was going to go down to this convention of blind people and teach them something. What happened is I learned a lot. I finally met blind people who were role models, people that I could look up to. I did not know one blind adult between the age of ten until I was 18 or so; only one blind adult who was holding down a job.”

The federation turned out to be his other family. He says, “Those two families have conspired or contributed to making me who I am now. I was fascinated by the concept that blind people are treated as second-class citizens in our society.” He became a government major, and that led him to the law. He attended the University of Minnesota Law School.

Scott is really tough-minded about his blindness and really lives by his LEAD line: “Your Possibilities Are Limitless.” He remarked about law school, “In terms of dealing with my blindness, there really was not a problem because by the time I was in law school, I had developed a lot of techniques and alternatives to doing things visually, and I did not have a barrier there. A lot of people say to me, ‘Law school must have been so tough for you.’ What they are saying is, ‘Law school must have been so tough for you because you are blind.’ Isn’t law school tough for anybody? I didn’t ask for anything special; I didn’t make any excuses because of my blindness. Yes, I had accommodations. I used braille. But I was busy because I became president of the National Association of Blind Students. I spent a great deal of time working to build that organization and traveling throughout the country and doing advocacy for blind students.”

He doesn’t like to be treated like there is something special about him. He says, “The thing I hate is when people say to me, ‘You are amazing. You’re so courageous,’ when they don’t know anything personally about me. Maybe I am amazing; maybe I am courageous; but it’s not just because I can get off my seat and walk to the door. This whole concept of ‘You are amazing for doing things that are so simple and just routine’ is nuts. I’m not amazing because of that; I’m amazing because of what I’ve accomplished and what I do with my life as a person. My blindness is an integral part of who I am; it formed my personality; it taught me a lot of things and continues to teach me a lot of things; but I am not amazing just because I can walk from my chair to a door, or I can travel through airports.”

Scott always finds a way to turn a negative into a positive, and his sheer drive and desire to innovate and create a brilliant life make him someone I admire. He is deeply involved in the National Federation of the Blind, one of whose key themes is braille literacy. And he will soon take the seat at the officers’ table at GPSolo and one day will be Chair of the Division. He is also completing a three-year term on the ABA Board of Governors and serves as president of the National Association of Blind Lawyers. He’s come a long way, and nothing will limit his possibilities.

Scott did not get to finish his term as our Chair, but he made a tremendous impact on the lives of everyone he touched. He was generous, he was funny, he loved to sing, and we are all touched by his bigger-than-life personality. You can read his obituary here.

Please contact me with your questions or comments at [email protected].

Defining Moments: Insights into the Lawyer’s Soul

Defining Moments: Insights into the Lawyer’s Soul

Defining Moments: Insights Into the Lawyer’s Soul
By Melanie Bragg
ISBN: 9781641054195
Product Code: 1620777
2019, 241 pages, paperback and e-book
$29.95; member price $23.95