by Deborah Kent Stein
Deborah Kent Stein is a recognized professional author. She is also blind and a member of the National Federation of the Blind of Illinois. From time to time she writes profiles of fellow Federation membersalways lively without being melodramatic and sensitive without being sentimental. Here is one such profile.
To this day, Bill Reif has vivid memories of the National Federation of the Blind student seminar he attended during his senior year in high school. "What they kept saying was that we had to take responsibility for ourselves," he explains. "People there were telling me I shouldn't just accept what the so-called experts said I should be doing I should push to learn whatever skills I needed and figure out the techniques that would work best for me." During the summer after he graduated from high school, Bill put the advice he heard at the NFB seminar into action. He knew he would have to hand in assignments in print when he started college in the fall. So he taught himself typing, a skill which the experts had somehow considered unnecessary for a blind student.
Even in high school, Bill knew that he wanted to become a lawyer. He attended the College of Du Page for two years and then transferred to Illinois Benedictine College in Lisle, where he had the chance to live away from home for the first time. After receiving his B.A., he entered law school at the University of Illinois in Champaign.
Law school was more challenging than anything he had tackled before. In college lectures he had relied heavily on his memory, but now he realized that he needed an effective way of taking notes in class. So he taught himself to write Braille using the slate and stylus.
After graduation from law school, Bill decided to look for a job in Champaign, where he had made many friends. For a while he did legal research, but he found full-time jobs were hard to come by. After two years he moved to Springfield, taking a job with the Illinois Department of Insurance, a state agency which regulates the insurance industry. The position lasted only ten months; then he was sending out resumes again.
Over the next two years Bill flooded the job market with applications and went on dozens of interviews. But employers were highly skeptical of hiring a blind lawyer. "Who brought you here?" they would ask him during interviews. "Is your mother waiting for you out there?" They questioned how he could handle travel on the job and what he would do about the heavy reading load. While Bill tried to focus attention on his professional skills and interests, the employers all too often couldn't find their way past blindness-related concerns. "You know, this building is awfully big and complicated, and the washrooms are up on the second floor...."
When a job finally came his way, it was through a fluke he could never have foreseen. A friend was taking a journalism class and wrote an article about Bill, which was published in the Springfield paper. The article was straightforward and unsentimental. It described how Bill had taught himself to cook, how he enjoyed roller skating, and how he was searching diligently for a job. A few days after the article appeared, the telephone rang. The caller was Illinois Attorney General Neil Hartigan. "I was utterly amazed," Bill recalls. "He not only invited me to come in for an interview, he offered me a choice of working in practically any division I wanted within his office. I couldn't believe it was really happening!"
In April, 1983, Bill went to work in the Department of Consumer Protection within the Attorney General's office. "I selected that particular area because it's very deeply concerned with justice," he explains. "It's really a matter of seeing that people get their rights."
Federation philosophy has proved an asset as Bill resolves blindness-related problems on the job. Each time he has had a change of supervisor, he has had to prove his abilities over again. Some, for example, have reassigned cases which they feared would require more research than they thought he could handle. Others have been reluctant to give him direct courtroom experience. He has learned to be assertive, to explain his techniques for getting the job done, and to insist on gaining experience which will enhance his professional development. "If you're not careful," he warns, "the job will get structured according to what others think you can do."
Bill got married in 1985. He met his wife, Roberta, through the Lutheran church, where he is an active member. Their son Bruce is two years old. Even when he planned to marry and raise a family, Bill encountered some people who told him he would never be able to manage such responsibilities. Again his personal philosophy, supported by his involvement in the National Federation of the Blind, strengthened his belief in himself. "You can't let anybody else tell you what you can do and can't do," he advises. "Be honest with yourself about your abilities and limitations but never be afraid to take chances."