Tribute to Scott LaBarre

This is being provided in a rough-draft format. Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART) is provided in order to facilitate communication accessibility and may not be a totally verbatim record of the proceedings.

ANIL LEWIS:  Good afternoon. This next part of the program is extremely dear to me, and probably more so to who I'm about to introduce. This gentleman actually played a role.  This is the tribute to Scott LaBarre.  And Scott LaBarre's, in the development of Scott LaBarre, he had a big role.  He has been a mentor to many.  He served as the leader of this organization for 28 years selflessly, while also raising a family, and his wife has joined us as well, Patricia Maurer.  For the tribute to Scott LaBarre, our immediate past President of the National Federation of the Blind, Dr. Marc Maurer.


MARC MAURER:  Thank you very much.  I know that we have been introducing ourselves with descriptions, so I'll tell you that I am getting to be an elderly gentleman these days, and I'm white and I wear a suit and a necktie.  This day, I have a pink necktie.  My daughter recommended it. We come to our friend, a fallen colleague, Scott LaBarre.  I never expected to be in this position.  I thought the two of us would be reversed and that one day he would talk about me.

The outpouring of affection and admiration for him that have occurred since he began the struggle with the ailment that ended his life showed the love and the ardent spirit that was within Scott.  He gave us his joy.  He gave us his optimism.  He came across the notion that if we learned and worked together, we could find a way to do something to bring greater opportunity to disabled people than had been available in the past, and he embraced the idea and expanded the faith, giving it depth and scope. He was convinced that tomorrow could be the day that we would fulfill the promises we had made to each other, and that he could be the agent to bring those promises into being.
He encountered prejudice in his life and discrimination in his work.

He was a lawyer with a grand voice and a huge spirit.  And a negotiator who could get things done that nobody expected, not even I, who believe most of the time that miracles can happen. He found that some of the prejudice was enshrined in legal doctrine, and he ran into it repeatedly in his practice.  Some of the doctrine was intended to protect the health and well-being of disabled people, but it was used as a weapon against us. Here is a little of what Scott LaBarre had to say about that.

(Audio recording.)

SCOTT LaBARRE:  Thank you to my Federation family.  I have the honor of presenting for you today on my longstanding nemesis:  What is it?  Why should we care about it?  And most important, what in the world can we do about it?  The only time that an employer or any other institution can exclude a person with a disability because of a disability-based safety concern is when the person's disability or impairment truly poses a direct threat.  This is defined as a significant risk to health and safety, and it must be proven by several objective factors.
It would seem that because the employer or whatever entity wishing to exclude us has to prove that the threat is significant and has to prove that the threat is significant using objective criteria, we need not worry about unfounded safety concerns about our blindness being used against us, right?  After all, it's against the law.

My friends, I submit to you that instead of a shield, used to protect us against stereotypes and misconceptions about our blindness and our disability, the doctrine of direct threat has been wielded against us as a weapon, preventing us from achieving true equal opportunity and thus true first-class citizenship. So how far have we really traveled along the path to integrationism?  How far do we really have left to go?
Although the law has improved since 1966, interpretation and application of the law are where we face a real threat, threat to our freedom and acquisition of first-class citizenship.

The problem is that what society and the courts regard as objective evidence about our blindness being a safety risk often seems ridiculous to us.  Oftentimes people simply make the assumption that the only way you can be "safe" in many activities of life is by doing them with sight.  In effect, being blind makes you per se automatically unsafe. I suspect we have all faced this blanket assumption at one point or another in our lives.  My first significant experience with my old nemesis came in Minnesota.  We went to a park and attempted to ride a number of attractions together.  The park told us that it was their policy that every blind person must be accompanied by a responsible adult.  Upon further investigation, we discovered that a responsible adult was defined as anyone over 4 feet tall and who could see.
As many of you know, my wife and I have two wonderful small children.  By Valley Fair's definition, both our 9-year-old son Alexander and our 7-year-old daughter Emily are now, amazingly, responsible adults!


In defending the policy, Valley Fair told us that they had hired biodynamic engineers, who opined that it was unsafe for the blind to ride things like roller coasters unless a sighted person told us what would be happening on the ride.

Otherwise, we would lose our postural control and undoubtedly get injured. In a document filed with the judge in the legal case that grew out of Valley Fair's policy, the amusement park's lawyers said the following:  "Many of the rides at Valley Fair, like all amusement parks, put the rider into an unusual position.  Some rides spin and spin and spin.  Some turn the rider completely upside down.  Some move with great speed and require the rider to brace him or herself.  And some get the rider completely wet.." My response to this startling revelation is, "Really?!"


My Federation friends, I don't know about you, but when I go to an amusement park, I fully expect to spin and spin and spin, turn completely upside down, move at great speeds, and, yes, I may even want to get completely and totally wet!


MARC MAURER:  Such is the voice of Scott LaBarre, expressing the outrage.


The legal profession has within it many lawyers, dedicated to the proposition that the rich can become richer.  Scott LaBarre was dedicated to the proposition that the poor can become richer and that the law was not made only for the rich. Furthermore, he wanted to be the person who gave representation to those who were without competent counsel.  He had many dreams.  He wanted to demonstrate how greater opportunity could be achieved, more books to be read, more educational activities to be had, more jobs available to more people, more opportunities to be enjoyed by those with disabilities, more families to be raised, more community to share, more welcome for disabled people everywhere.

This is what Scott LaBarre meant, and this is what he did. Sir Isaac Newton said that if he had been able to observe more than others, it was because he gained perspective by standing on the shoulders of giants. Scott LaBarre has given us his spirit.  He has also given us those shoulders, and he expects us to use them to finish the work, to stand tall, and to get the equality and the opportunity that we deserve!


One of my favorite people in the world is a partner at Brown, Goldstein & Levy, who served in the Department of Justice, and who fought the battle to get greater opportunity for disabled people and sometimes made it, but who also knows about the entrenched, unforgiving part of the culture that wants to keep it from happening. One of the premiere lawyers dealing with disability in the United States, here is Eve Hill!


EVE HILL:  All right, and I thought I was going to cry already. So a lot of us knew Scott.  We knew his booming voice, whether it was calling us all together or getting us to shut up so we could get started, or singing the PAC plan song.  Many memories of his booming voice.  And his great laugh.  I could always find Scott in a crowd from his great laugh.  And sometimes his terrible jokes.


And sometimes his gin and tonics.  A lot of things to remember him for.  And one of the things that I will most remember him for is his calm, thoughtful approach to thorny issues that made him feel both like your ally and like someone you could completely trust and follow.  And I completely trusted and followed Scott into a number of our cases as we co-counseled together. But what I'm going to miss most about Scott and what I already miss, trying to pick up his role as general counsel, is his insight into people. Many of us have a persona.  I know I have a persona.  Because I'm a complete and utter imposter.  And Scott could see through those personas. I don't know if all of y'all knew that, but he could see through it.  And this is a great thing in negotiations with the other side because he could see through their personas as well.  So with cocounseling, he would say, oh, no, they really mean this, while I would be freaking out.

He would say, no, no, no, they really mean this and they're going to come back with this offer and it's going to be fine, calm down.
And he would be right.  And I would be righteously outraged as always. But Scott always saw through my persona.  One of the things that I got to talk to him about shortly before he passed unfortunately was that I was being fake me.  And he said, I know that's who you present as and he explained what he saw as my real persona.  That made him a wonderful friend.  And I think he was a wonderful friend, not just a colleague, to so many of us.  And that's what I will miss about Scott and what I do miss about Scott every single day. So Scott, we miss you.  We love you.  And you are a terrific friend.  Thank you for everything.


MARC MAURER:  We have a colleague of Scott's who litigated with him also in the courts and encountered the misunderstanding of disability that is so prevalent in the society, but is sometimes, as I say, enshrined in the law.  A man who came to be a part of the legal profession and of disability work after Scott joined the effort, and I think who may have found a mentor in the man we honor today.
Here is a practicing lawyer in disability, Tim Elder.


TIM ELDER:  Thank you, Dr. Maurer.  I don't have Scott's voice, that's for sure. I'll try to keep this together.  This is the first time I've really had an opportunity to express some of the feelings I've been feeling about Scott's loss. I really enjoyed getting to know Scott in several capacities.  I mean, first, he was my mentor in blindness philosophy.  In 2006 he was one of the first blind people, or I should say fellow blind people, that I had ever met.  I had received a scholarship to the National Federation of the Blind, and prior to that I had lived a pretty isolated life in my home community.  I was ashamed of disability and the identity of blindness. I remember meeting Scott for the first time, this really colorful character, with this huge voice, and he was proud of his identity as a blind person, and he was comfortable and wasn't ashamed and was perfectly happy with his life.  

And for someone who had been living I should say in the closet, with the identity of blindness, and always thought of it as the end of my life was the time that I would admit that blindness had limited me and I was a blind person, to have that worldview completely turned upside down, just completely changed my life. It encouraged me to go to law school, to believe that I could actually do it.  I wasn't sure if I could or would want to.  This completely changed the trajectory of my life. Next I got to know Scott as a legal mentor.  I was a law student and he was one of the lawyers in the litigation, and he introduced me to all these other great legal minds and mentors, people like Dan Goldstein and Larry Paradis, one of these wannabe lawyers who wanted to squeeze into law school, it was like this exciting thing to meet all these amazing people doing really cool work on a really interesting issue.

And then I wasn't to law school.  In 2009 I had the privilege of getting to know Scott as his client.  He was my lawyer in the bar exam cases. When I took the LSAT, I said, I would like to take this with the screen reader thing that I found, and they said, no, we can't do that, you have to use a human reader.  I said, oh, I didn't know.  Okay, fine. And I met Scott and the National Federation of the Blind and all these blind people said, no, the law says you can take this. And so Scott represented me so that I could take the California bar exam with a screen reader.  Now, I had to do it under a federal injunction, under the watch of an armed guard, you know, because I might accidentally break the security protocol and leak it out on the internet or something, but it makes for a great bar exam story.


After law school and passing the bar exam, I got to know Scott as a co-counsel.  I was able to see how he handled victories in cases like the Enyers case and other bar exam cases that continued on, but I also got to see Scott in how he handled defeat.  He didn't win every case.  I was with him on one of his nemesis direct threat jury trials where the jury just notwithstanding Scott's amazing arguments didn't believe what we were saying about the safety of blind people. Whether Scott was winning or losing, he always had the end in mind.  He was really about advancing rights and sticking up for that wronged blind person or that person with a disability who was really not getting equal and fair treatment. For Scott, the law was just this tool that might help do that job.

As a litigator, he just knew how to take punishment and press on, like watching an elephant push through the courtroom.  Things would be thrown at him and would fall off.  He would keep pushing and pushing with his amazing strength that was such an amazing thing to experience.  I knew Scott as a business owner.  He encouraged me to open my own practice early on in my career when maybe it wasn't the wisest decision, but he fully supported me to do what I was feeling in my heart at that time. I knew Scott as a civil rights leader.  He showed me that there are other tools that a lawyer can use besides litigation, or in complement to litigation, to get that end objective accomplished, which is about promoting equality and access.

I knew Scott in many capacities.  But the aspect that I think I cherish the most was really knowing Scott as a friend.  His heart, his passion, I think that's the aspect of him that I appreciated the most. Our movement and the symposium, I think there's an empty seat somewhere here today because we don't have Scott with us, but he did train us. Scott trained me. He trained several others in this room for the next generation to step up and take his teachings and move forward.  And to take his impact of that heart and spirit and really multiply it so that now I and several others in this room who were mentored by Scott are now mentoring a few others, just as Scott taught us. So we're trying to build an army of Scott LaBarres.  I think even if we're just half successful, I know we will change this world and the right that we have to live in it.  So I'm so thankful for the time that I did have with Scott and the impact that he made, and I know the fire will keep burning from his influence. So thank you.


MARC MAURER:  Some people are the kind who change the shape of an institution or a community. The next to come to speak to us was one of Scott LaBarre's best buddies.  I know him because he has changed the shape of the organization that we have.  He has come to the law symposium and said things from the platform that I wouldn't have dared to say.  He has changed the culture that we have, that we live with, with respect to disability.  He's been a quiet person much of the time, but he too has a big voice.  It is my pleasure and my honor to introduce Anil Lewis.


ANIL LEWIS:  Made me have a flashback.  I forgot about that tenBroek presentation.  You guys can find it on the web.


I know Scott -- I'm sorry.  I have been up here several times and I haven't done this.  So I am a 6-foot tall Black male, but I'm blind so that means I'm not a responsible adult, although I am the required height, but I cannot see. I know Scott as a friend.  Wow.  You know, I was tempted to say some things but now Dr. Maurer's got me a little afraid that I might go on record again for saying things.  Well, hell, I don't care. So the thing I love about Scott, first and foremost, is he was just genuinely authentically himself.  And that's what I always strive to be. So I think there was a natural connection.  He was a friend but he's one of those friends that's closer than any brother. I was graciously invited to a ceremony, a celebration of Scott's life by his wife Anahit, and Scott made it very clear that during that particular gathering, he wanted happiness.  He wanted jokes.  He wanted people to tell the truth about how he lived his life.  And if you knew Scott, I mean, he lived with joy.

But one of the things that we shared, here we go, is we were hanging out at 21st Amendment.  A bunch of us are sitting around a big table. And his buddy, Kevin Worley, was picking on him one day and saying, Scott, you know, you're probably the whitest white boy in the Federation. And Scott, he owned it.  Darn right, buddy!


So every time Scott and I would see each other, hey, Scottie! Hi, Anil.  It was great.  He just owned it and he was real.  And the reason I really liked it is Scott was really like a brother from another mother.  He was one of the most genuine people when it came to discussing things that were a little bit I guess tainted.  It's nice to have people that you can freely discuss things with that aren't just going to be putting things forward in a way that makes it difficult for you to express yourself because you're not familiar with what's contemporary now.  You don't know about woke and cancel and all of that stuff so it was very helpful to have those conversations with him.

The thing I loved about him even more is Scott was truly introspective to making himself the best person he could be, and in that way, he encouraged others to do the same.  I mentioned earlier that Dr. Maurer had a tremendous impact on Scott's life, not just as a mentor.  The most powerful thing Dr. Maurer did for Scott, Scott worked here for some time.  Dr. Maurer gave him permission to be someplace else.  He was terminated or whatever.  He was given permission, to explain to those who missed that.


And I loved that about Dr. Maurer because he will be honest with you and I appreciate that.  And Scott appreciated that too.  So Scott went off and he took the advice Dr. Maurer gave and continued to cultivate the skills necessary for him to be successful, as Tim just described, really impressive.  And the thing I loved about that is once he built up his own practice, Dr. Maurer continued to use him as a legal resource for this organization, and President Riccobono brought him on board as general counsel. He never would have been able to begin that degree of competence if someone wasn't honest enough to tell him that he needed to, first of all, but I find more and more today, so many people rather than recognizing that that come from a place of love and it's to encourage you to be better, they just victimize themselves and they don't own that what they heard was true.  But he didn't do that.  He took it internally, he evaluated it, and he made himself a better person, and we're all better for it.

And that's how I know Scott. Everybody talks about his booming voice.  But I'll tell ya, it's so funny, speaking of the whitest white boy, we were hanging out one day, that's how I know Scott, as a friend, not a lawyer, but we're sitting up there and suddenly we're hearing someone, tee hee.  And I'm like, who is that?  Scott, are you laughing saying tee hee?  You are the whitest white boy!


But again, he gave as good as he got.  And I am so pleased that I have him still in my heart, because Scott has helped me become who I am because he's had that patience and the forgiveness to allow me to just talk to him directly and not really be afraid that he's going to use it to weaponize our relationship or whatever, but he is truly my brother from another mother, and I will miss him physically, but as long as I have inside of me all the memories that we have together and all the things that he's taught me, I will not miss him spiritually. So hey, Scottie!


MARC MAURER:  We have a few minutes.  If there are those who want to say a word, now would be the time.  Tell you what --

SPEAKER:  Someone's coming.

MARC MAURER:  It would be good if you identify yourself.

RONZA OTHMAN:  Dr. Maurer, it's Ronza.

MARC MAURER:  You'll be next.

JOHN WALDO:  Yes, I'm here.

MARC MAURER:  You were first.

RONZA OTHMAN:  Good afternoon.  My name is Ronza Othman.  I use she/her pronouns. And I am also not a responsible adult, though I am over 4-foot tall.  I am Muslim wearing a religious head covering. Scott was one of the first people I met in the national organization, and I served as his Vice President for the National Association of Blind Lawyers for nearly a decade. One of the things that I loved most to do with Scott is to fight with him.  Scott was wonderful at arguing, and he would take a very unpopular position, even though it wasn't what he actually believed in an argument, just so that he could get me to think more.  To articulate better.  To fashion my argument in a way that would be convincing based on intellect or based on the use of proper words because eventually I would fall into "But Scott, stop it!"

So that I would be a better lawyer, so that I could be a better friend, so that I could be a better leader, so that I could be a better advocate.
I remember one time having a conversation with Scott, being so mad at him because he and Tim had a conversation and I was like, you didn't include me, it was some policy setting stuff about the organization.  And he said to me, "Well, we didn't make a decision.  We just came to you and told you what we thought we should do."

And by the time we were done with the conversation, he had convinced me, without me knowing that that was what was happening because I was so committed to being on the other side, whether I believed it or not because I was mad at him, that his idea, he and Tim's, and the direction they wanted to go was, in fact, the right direction. What Scott did best for his friends and his opponents was to push them to get out of their own way.  And he did that in his litigation practice and he did that in his advocacy work, and did he that in all of the aspects of his life. Now, I work for a federal agency that has been fortunate enough to have been sued by the National Federation of the Blind and DREDF. Thank you.  

And I remember, I wasn't part of those conversations.  I was conflicted out because of my work.  But I would walk into these meetings with my agency when they would say, well, we just finished a meeting with NFB, and that Scott LaBarre sure is something.  He is going to make us do better than even we thought we wanted to do.  He's going to make us try harder and he's going to push us to do the best we can for the American people. If you're lucky, you got to know Scott LaBarre a little bit.  If you are very lucky, you got to be sued by Scott LaBarre.


And if you're very, very, very lucky, you got to be among Scott's friends and colleagues. This TenBroek Law Symposium is very much a part of Scott's legacy.  This is one of the gifts to us because he cared about it so much and put so much of his heart and soul into it.  This is part of the legacy he leaves for us. He is on our mind today but will continue to be because as we argue direct threat cases and Olmstead cases and voting rights cases, etc., he was one of the true pioneers in the Disability Rights Movement, and he moved mountains.
I am very, very lucky to have been one of his friends.  And I'm so grateful to have been able to share a little bit of Scott with all of you today thank you.


MARC MAURER:  John Waldo.

JOHN WALDO:  Thank you very much, Dr. Maurer. I was moved by what Tim said about going into a disability closet.  Those of us who lose our hearing, we do the same thing.  It's so easy to say, oh, the heck with it and stay home and give up. At Scott's online tribute, I couldn't come to it.  I saw it on television.  But he was quoted as saying something that absolutely changed my life.  I mean, we talk about how people need to respect people with disabilities.  What Scott said is "What people see is what we show them.  We have to get out of the closet.  We have to be the people we can be.  There are things we can't do, but let's do what we can."

One time, someone was playing a concert.  A violin string broke.  He kept going.  A second string broke.  He kept going.  At the end, people applauded.  And he said, you have to make the music you can with what you have left. That's what Scott did too.  I was so fortunate to know him. We all were.


MARC MAURER:  Scott served as President of the Disability Rights Bar Association.  He was a man who took this law symposium to heart and worked on it constantly.  He was a leader to all of us.  I will never forget him.  I thank all of you for coming.