Future Reflections Winter/Spring 2000, Vol. 19 No. 1
Reprinted from the February, 1999 edition of The Palmetto Blind, a publication of the NFB of South Carolina.
For the few blind attorneys practicing law in the 1950’s, productivity depended almost entirely on the assistance of sighted people, such as secretaries or paralegals. Today, however, the practice of law is much more accessible to the average blind attorney due to the advent of various items that use computer technology. A blind attorney nowadays can read documents and materials relating to a case with an optical character recognition (OCR) system. He/she can generate documents such as correspondence and court papers—and even take his file to court—with a portable note taker like a Braille ‘n Speak. The purpose of this article is to discuss briefly how blind attorneys accomplish these tasks through the use of currently available and reasonably affordable technology.
For approximately $5,000, an individual can purchase an IBM-compatible personal computer, an optical character recognition system, and the speech software that will allow these items to be used effectively by the blind. A practicing attorney can use these devices in the following ways: to draft legal correspondence and documents, to research current law in the preparation of a case, and to read correspondence and documents from other parties.
Many people do not realize that the practice of law involves more than appearing in court. It requires reading, obtaining, and processing vast amounts of information. In fact, the practice of law involves a lot of paperwork, and just a little court time. Therefore, the attorney who uses this technology effectively has a good chance of establishing a successful practice.
While nothing has yet been able to replace the human eye in terms of efficiency, document scanners and the software that turns the scanned images into text that can be spoken by a voice synthesizer, has made reading the vast amounts of paperwork heaped on attorneys every day much easier. Furthermore, since the scanned documents can be stored as files, the blind attorney has a virtual file on his computer that he can access at any time without assistance. For example, a client’s entire file can be scanned into the computer and stored on disk for later reference. Similarly, documents like court rules, cases, and statutes can also be stored in this way. It is no longer necessary to sit down with a sighted reader to retrieve this information, although sometimes it is still helpful.
The computer itself, equipped with proper adaptive software for speech or large print, is a tremendous help to the blind attorney. Not only can the computer serve as a convenient way to generate documents, but it has also become the preferred means of legal research for both blind and sighted attorneys. Information that once required a large library space to store and keep current can now be stored on a CD-Rom or computer hard drive. In addition, if the computer has a modem, various on-line information sources can be accessed, providing up-to-the minute information on statutes, cases, and even pending legislation.
Computer-assisted legal research has radically altered the practice of law for everyone, but it is of particular help to blind attorneys, who no longer need a reader to go to the law library with them and flip through countless pages of legal texts. In short, a blind individual can enter the practice of law with relative ease and be more competitive with his sighted peers than ever before.
In addition to the devices and techniques described above, portable technology like the Braille ‘n Speak and the Braille Lite can be immensely helpful to a blind attorney, in much the same way a laptop computer assists many sighted attorneys. It is not uncommon to see an attorney carry his laptop to court, not only to retrieve information about the case, but to do actual research and make arguments on a moment’s notice. A Braille ‘n Speak or Braille Lite can be used in the same way.
In closing, while technology will never replace good Braille literacy skills, it would be wise for anyone contemplating entering the practice of law to become proficient in the use of adaptive technology. After all, the sighted legal community certainly has. The leading firms of the twenty-first century will be on the cutting edge of using advanced technology in the practice of law. In order to stay competitive in today’s legal professions, it’s a good idea to stay up-to-date with today’s technology.