by Patti Chang
From the Editor: Patti Chang is senior corporation counsel for the city of Chicago, Illinois. She is also president of the National Federation of the Blind of Illinois and a member of the NFB national board of directors. Patti offered the following remarks during her presentation to the delegates at the 2009 NFB national convention on the afternoon of Wednesday, July 8. While unique to her life experience, her reflections tell a story familiar to many blind people. Here is what she said:
The old adage said, “One step forward and two steps back.” I want to talk to you about one step back and two steps forward instead. I know you are all expecting that I will share war stories about the infamous state of Illinois and the equally well-reputed city of Chicago. I have a few of those but would just as soon not perpetuate that particular myth. My state and city get enough bad press as it is. Instead I want to speak to you about something a little more personal that most of us can relate to in our everyday lives. I focus on blindness and its impact on representing the City of Chicago.
I have been with the city for more than twenty years. The first ten years I worked as an assistant corporation counsel. I started in traffic court, and I moved to housing court. In 1998 I was promoted to the position of senior assistant corporation counsel and assigned to supervise the administrative law unit. My unit handles housing issues before Chicago's Department of Administrative Hearings. If you’ve been listening this week, you would guess that on my job I use adaptive techniques. I travel to court and to work using a cane. I take notes with Braille. I access handwritten material with a reader. My screen-reading software is JAWS. These are essential tools. They allow me to handle cases and supervise others competently.
Beyond these tools how do I perform as a blind attorney? Most of the time blindness is not an issue. I prosecute housing court cases which allege that building owners have violated the building fire or zoning codes of the city of Chicago, and I supervise others who do the same. I serve on committees at work and provide advice and counsel to client departments. At any given time I am supervising from six to ten law clerks and from four to six attorneys. Most of them are new graduates from law schools and have been attorneys for fewer than three years. I usually don’t think about the use of adaptive techniques. When asking a question, my employees will often read some text to give a context. If they want to know if an upright that is pulling away from a building poses a danger, they read the text of the violation and ask their question. Neither of us thinks about how we’re doing it; we simply get the job done in whatever manner works.
If I stop and think about it, however, I realize that we have come a long way when one of us can be promoted by sighted people to supervise sighted people. We have come a long way when any of us has the authority to work to protect the public health, safety, and welfare. I make decisions every day that can affect people’s livelihoods, quality of life, and safety. Some of our cases involve life and death issues. Hence I marvel at our two steps forward. We can feel good about how far we have come. We thank those who have paved the way for us. I have heard that in one of his teaching positions Dr. tenBroek was not paid. He had to prove himself to the university without pay to earn a position. I have never had to do that. We as blind people took two steps forward.
My employer requires attorneys occasionally to inspect properties. Now we don’t prosecute the best properties in the city of Chicago. We prosecute property owners who own problematic properties. So you can imagine that I have walked a few bad porches. I have explored four-story buildings under construction. Many of them have no ductwork yet and boast numerous unprotected shafts. Imagine a property with four feet of sewage in the basement. Imagine a roach nest falling on your head. I can recall both vividly. I marvel that my boss never thought twice about sending me out on these inspections. I never heard that insurance might be a problem or that I might get hurt—two big steps forward, right?
Then consider my shock when the same boss informed me that in a fire or a fire drill, I was to wait for a fire marshal to escort me out of my office and down the stairs. I explained to no avail that I had children. I planned to get out like everyone else so I could be there for them. My boss remained unconvinced when the contradiction between sending me out on inspections and expecting me to wait was pointed out. I even offered to assist her in smoke and fire. After all, I would be better equipped to maneuver, since she was not used to maneuvering without her vision. I finally ended this argument by quoting the ADA and electing to opt out of the offered accommodation. She didn’t like it, but she had to live with it. [applause]
This situation still puzzles me. I have inspected terrible buildings in bad neighborhoods while quite pregnant. How can you send me out to climb unfinished buildings, which sometimes have no outer walls and have openings directly to the outer air, and not expect me to travel down stairs in my own place of employment? Two steps back? And what do you do? You don’t work alone. We keep working together. We keep changing attitudes. We join the National Federation of the Blind, which allows us to speak in tandem on these issues. [applause] We take two steps forward as the blind speaking for ourselves.
Then we experience the occasional punch to the solar plexus. I work predominantly in the area of administrative law. The Illinois State Bar Association has section councils upon which lawyers sit who are experts in their field. One of those is the administrative law section counsel of the Illinois State Bar Association. Since I work in such a specific area of law, I have been able to develop expertise, and I am a recognized expert in municipal administrative law in Illinois. In the 1990s I volunteered for several years to serve on the administrative law section council. Generally, when someone with expertise volunteers, they will be appointed. Somehow my appointment letter never came. I knew there were openings on the section council. The chair of that section council at the time and I had often fought in court. I knew her fairly well. She and I visited the president of the Illinois State Bar Association and asked him face to face why I could not gain an appointment. No answer was forthcoming, but despite the lack of an answer my appointment letter came shortly thereafter.
After being appointed, I diligently wrote articles, attended meetings, served on committees, and the like so that I could prove that the appointment had been appropriate. All of us are measured by one of us. I want to make it easier for the next blind attorney, just like Dr. Maurer, Dr. tenBroek, and others have paved a path for me and passed the torch to my generation.
Recently a different president of the Illinois State Bar Association appointed me to serve as secretary of the administrative law section council. Secretaries serve for one year. They are automatically promoted to the position of vice chair the next year and chair of the section council the year after that. I was pleased the Illinois State Bar Association, which had overlooked me I think because of blindness, now wanted me to chair a section council. [applause] Two steps forward, right?
We teach continuing legal education courses as part of our duties. In May we traveled to Springfield to teach a continuing legal education course. I was assigned to address the topic of Chicago’s Department of Administrative Hearings. Ten minutes into my presentation I hear, “Ma'am, Ma'am, do you know that you are only four inches from the edge of that platform?” What a punch, what a punch. This man could not see past my cane enough to listen to me, even when he has paid for the privilege. I had followed Dr. Jernigan’s practice of checking out the room ahead of time. I responded, “You don’t know this, but I came in and examined the room ahead of time, but I don’t mind making sighted folks a little nervous.” [laughter] I moved my foot four inches to the exact edge of the platform. I finished addressing this helpful gentleman by telling him that I would be more than happy to discuss blindness with him at the end of the presentation if he wished to stay. One step back? It's disappointing that someone could have watched me mount the stairs to a platform, read from a BrailleNote, and still fail to comprehend that I might have a clue about where I am in space.
Now he meant well; he really did mean well, but his misplaced assistance was no easier to swallow. I still felt as if I had been punched. I still felt that I had been sucker punched. On the other hand, maybe this was two steps forward too.
Bill Price is another attorney who serves on the Section Council. I had failed to break Bill of the habit of telling me of every step, every turn, and every rug, every time we walked anywhere together. Our discussion of the continuing legal education program allowed me to talk to Bill about it without his being defensive. He is now telling me about only every other turn and every other rug. [laughter] I’ll take my two steps forward where I can get them.
At this point I have probably supervised two hundred to two hundred and fifty new attorneys in the state of Illinois. All of them have seen a blind person as other than dependent and helpless. To put it bluntly, they have seen one of us in a position of authority with the power to affect their careers. I hope that I have evinced competency, but I hope even more that now at least some of them are willing to hire blind applicants. [applause] If so, we have collectively taken two steps forward.
Working to make the Kindle accessible without special registration or higher fees takes us forward into the mainstream of life. Our silent cars legislation moves us forward. The Braille campaign increases the literacy of our own. Better education leads to more opportunities to stride out and take those forward steps. We will continue to work for full and equal access to all aspects of life. We will not move forward with each and every step we take, but, whenever we join together, we are a force to be reckoned with. We take two steps forward more often than we step back. As a collective voice we will be heard, and we will keep the momentum moving in the right direction. Let us continue marching forward and taking those steps as the largest group of the organized blind in the world.