Braille Monitor                                                   May 2010

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Advice from the Trenches: Assistance for a Would-Be Law Student

From Barbara Pierce: The other day my daughter reported to me that she had heard my nine-year-old grandson thanking God for the Internet. I must confess that when I return home from a trip to confront hundreds of email messages, most of which I do not wish to receive, I do not share Jack’s enthusiasm for this intrusive and almost ubiquitous element of modern life. But, when I read exchanges on our listservs like the following, I am forced to admit that never before have blind people had such a powerful tool for seeking encouragement, information, and advice. This particular thread began on August 19, 2009, with a post to the National Association of Blind Lawyers listserv from a woman being discouraged by her vocational rehabilitation counselor from applying to law school. Other listers took it from there. We reprint here the original post and several of the many responses that the woman received. Note the reassurance, solid advice, and offers of help if needed that characterize the posts. This network of knowledgeable supporters is one of the most valuable and empowering aspects of the National Federation of the Blind. Here is the exchange:

Dear Lawyers with Low or No Vision,

I am legally blind with little central vision. I have a strong academic record as well as an employment history which includes having brokerage and insurance licenses. Anyway, my vision has deteriorated to the point of my not being able to read large print. I have been home with small children for several years. Today I had my first meeting with a rehabilitation counselor. I told her that I wanted to go to law school and become an expert in disability and civil rights law. She told me, "Well, maybe after vocational counseling, we can help you come up with some better goals."

Is it really so unreasonable to believe I can compete in law school and legal practice with little and eventually no vision? While I am no Einstein, I am not a dolt. Am I being unrealistic? Is it possible to alter one's learning style as an adult? I always learned by reading and writing. For me law school would need to be accomplished exclusively using adaptive (text-to-speech) technology. I can read print only with intense contrast and magnification aids.

Anyway, maybe I am unrealistic. I have children,. I could stay home and organize my recipe collection. But losing my sight has given me the desire to advocate for those who face systemic barriers in our society. Do I need "better goals?” Did anyone out there learn to learn again in a different way? How did you do so? Is every day a struggle to compete with sighted peers? Were law school and practicing so stressful that they contributed to destroying your family? If you had to do it over again, would you? If not, what would you have done? Do you have any suggestions for me?

I would greatly appreciate any help or advice you can provide.

Sincerely,
_____

Good evening,

Approximately four years ago my vision started deteriorating rapidly. Until that time I had been able to read both printed texts and the computer screen. I was like many people, ignorant of what a blind person could do. I decided that I better go to university if I was ever to stand a chance at completing it successfully. Approximately three months into my education I lost all of my remaining sight and had to make the switch to adaptive technology. For me this consisted of the JAWS screen reader and the Kurzweil 1000 book-reading software.

Obviously there was a learning curve in adapting to learning without using printed text and learning how to use a computer with speech. However, after three years of undergraduate education and the stress of writing the LSAT (I wrote it only once) I was accepted into law school and was awarded a fairly hefty academic scholarship.

To sum it all up, I would say that you should not consider your loss of vision as a handicap to being successful in law school. You may want, however, to consider a number of other factors: why you want to study law, whether you are prepared for the time commitment, what impact law school will have on your family, etc.

HTH [Hope this helps],

Dear _____,

Like you, I have little to no central vision and have been losing vision throughout my adult life (I can barely read extraordinarily large print--letters have to be four inches tall, and even at that size I take forty-five minutes to read one page of text), so essentially I cannot read visually. Also like you, I wanted to go to law school after taking six years off to work after I graduated from college. I too wanted to enter the field of disability rights law and policy to work in bringing about much needed systemic change for the disability community.

With only four months between me and my diploma from UCLA School of Law, I think I am safe in saying one can definitely become a lawyer with this type of disability. I must admit, however, that it has not been easy. Even though I have considered withdrawing from the J.D. program three times and even had to seek legal counsel in order to get reasonable accommodations for the LSAT and in law school, I still tell others who share my career goals that it is worthwhile and something I would do again if I were given the choice.

I was very depressed and extremely isolated at my law school. The university had only one other blind person in the entire school, and, although she is a great friend, she was an undergrad who wasn't enduring anything like the law school experience I was encountering. I joined the local NFB chapter, but it had to fold due to lack of membership (there really aren't very many blind folks near where I attend school).

By my second year in law school I was seriously depressed about my career choice. While contemplating withdrawing, I connected with one of my mentors, Ollie Cantos, who was working in the White House on domestic disability policy at the time. He talked with me for hours--until 3 a.m. He listened to all of my concerns, shared common experiences, and offered wonderful advice. He said there were two things I needed to do in order to survive in this field: I needed to find a way to be connected on a regular basis with what inspired me to go to law school (and he stipulated that this should not be done within my own law school; it needed to be outside). He also explained that he was willing to make this investment in speaking with me because he was asking me to pay it forward--to offer guidance to at least three others later. These two pieces of advice have been the most helpful I've received.

Within three weeks of speaking with Ollie, I became the chair of the Steering Committee to launch a new organization, the National Association of Law Students with Disabilities (www.nalswd.org). I later became president of this organization, and now I am an advisor to the organization, and I'm launching an affiliate group for lawyers with disabilities (more on that later). This community work has assisted me tremendously--offering me peer support and wonderful professional development experience (we're filing for our nonprofit status, have raised over $40,000, organized national conferences, created hundreds of contacts in the legal field, and done advocacy work on LSAT issues and other projects that affect law students with disabilities; and I have honed my management skills as I lead a cross-disability network of law students with the full range of disabilities in organizational work). I write all of this because I want you to know that, not only can blind people excel in law school, but they can accomplish whatever they set their minds to.

As for the second piece of advice Ollie Cantos gave me--to reach out to others behind me--I think it is one of the most important things a lawyer or law student with a disability can do with his or her time. I believe it is billable time in the case we are all working on--the advancement of people with disabilities in the legal profession.

I can assure you that, if you asked the average rehab counselor if all of this was attainable, the answer would probably not be "yes." I would never consider a rehab counselor's assessment of what I could or couldn’t accomplish (or anyone else for that matter). Instead, I chose to look at what I want to do and who I can connect with to talk about different aspects of the path toward that goal. I constantly seek out advice from blind lawyers, blind law students, and others with disabilities. Soliciting advice has helped me personally, and it has helped me foster professional contacts. I think every aspiring law student with a disability should seek this kind of counsel from several sources.

As for taking time off before law school to work and focus on your family--I think this will actually have been a great advantage for you. Research has shown that individuals who have these types of experiences under their belt before law school do better academically and cope better with the personal challenges encountered in legal education. So be grateful you didn't go straight through or spend just a year off. Your experiences will give you a wonderful foundation that can really keep you centered.

Use your personal advocacy skills to convince your rehab counselor that you can do this. If she won't budge, find a different rehab counselor. If you are still a rehab client, you should be able to get the agency to pay for law school. I know blind law students in many states, and I know what they've gotten rehab to pay for--let me know where you live (or where you plan to attend law school).

Yes, an adult can learn to learn in a new way. I highly recommend that you learn Braille and how to use screen-reading software like Jaws for Windows before going to law school. I learned both of these in my twenties, and they are invaluable. Since I was working full time when I was losing vision, I didn't want to go away to one of NFB's centers to learn Braille. Instead, my rehab counselor sent a Braille teacher to work with me on my lunch hour every day.

I am happy to answer any other questions you may have along the way (including advice on getting accommodations for the LSAT—which can be tricky--I've interviewed over forty students on this issue). You can email me off-list.

If you email me off-list, I will send you an article about me that describes how I handle law school material. It details what my vision is like and describes my career goals and national organizing work. Having a recently published article to give to your counselor that has many parallels to your own situation may mitigate some of her counter arguments and skepticism. Plus rehab loves documentation in justifying expensive rehab clients (like those who get them to pay for law school). This article could definitely be used for documentation that this is feasible and reasonable. I wish you the best of luck in your career path and hope to meet you along the way.
_______

Dear _____,

I am the sighted mother of a seven-year-old blind child. I graduated from law school (Wake Forest--woo hoo!--it really was a fabulous school) in 1996.   I served as a law clerk and then opened my own practice. It was hard, but my husband's support has always been invaluable. I severely cut back my practice after our daughter was born and developed many health problems.

Later, after those problems were resolved (she is no longer at death's door) and we found out that she is blind, I resumed my practice. But something else kept nagging at me. You see, I always wanted to teach, but my parents were not at all supportive of my dream. So I went to law school and business school and got my J.D. and my MBA. I am successful but unfulfilled.

This summer I started a program to become a TVI (teacher of the visually impaired). Eventually I hope to attain a PhD and advocate, lecture, and teach about the vital importance of blindness skills for our children. My husband has been phenomenally supportive (although my mother has been less so).

I am setting forth all of this information to illustrate how incredibly important it is to follow your dreams—to feed your soul. Is it hard going back to school with a child (or more than one) for whom you are primarily responsible? Yes. But I often find myself putting off my legal work in order to advocate for other parents of blind children or even doing my homework in my classes. (I never liked my law school homework that much.)

Please take a full inventory and make certain that you have sufficient family support for your goals. A supportive husband is truly worth far more than his weight in gold, oil, etc. On the other hand, my husband has noticed that a more satisfied, though weary, wife is better than one who is unfulfilled in her chosen career.

Once you are confident in the level of family support (emotional, physical, housekeeping, financial, etc.), go for it. There are various scholarships available, especially for those interested in going into public interest law (such as disability advocacy). Check with the law school(s) you are considering, it or they may even offer scholarships or loan repayments for students who go into public interest law.

Please, please, please follow your dreams, if at all possible. You will be a better wife, mother, and human being for it! Take care, and PLEASE do not hesitate to contact me if I can be of any help.

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