IDIA Law Blog: Increasing Access by Increasing Diversity
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Interview with Jack Chen, Google patent lawyer: On being blind & access in the legal profession
Our next interview in the IDAP interview series features Jack Chen, a highly accomplished patent attorney who works at Google in New York City.
Despite being completely blind for the last 25 years, Jack has scaled many peaks in his academic and professional life, having obtained degrees in computer science and law from Harvard University, UC Berkeley and Fordham University School of Law.
In addition to being an exceptional patent attorney, Jack has also competed in marathons and Ironman triathlons. You can read more about his stellar achievements here.
We are particularly thrilled to be getting an opportunity to bring you this interview on the 3rd of December, the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. For it is our earnest belief that stories such as Jack’s are a testament to the fact that one’s dreams should not be handicapped by one’s disability; that having sight is not a prerequisite to having vision; and that, if provided appropriate support systems, there is no impediment too difficult to surmount for the disabled.
This interview was conducted by Rahul Bajaj and Anusha Reddy, members of the IDAP Team. The interview was conducted over Skype. The audio recording of the interview can be accessed below. We highly recommend listening to the audio recording. The transcript of the interview is set out below. The interview has been edited for clarity.
- First off, would you mind describing to our readers the precise nature of your disability?
I am now currently blind. I’ve been completely blind for approximately 25 years. I lost my eyesight when I was in the 10th grade just before taking the college entrance exams – the standardized tests in the United States, called the SATs, you take before gaining entrance to college. At that time, it was quite a shock. Before that, I had some limited eyesight. I was born with two conditions – one is called Microphthalmia which means ‘small eye’ and Sclerocornea which essentially is ‘white eye’. They were two conditions I had and as we found out recently, they are likely genetic conditions because my brother who is visually impaired and who is also a lawyer has similar conditions to what I have. I had some limited eyesight up until the 10th grade and lost it in an eye operation that didn’t go according to plan if you will and left me for the next 25 years where I am now.
- You said that you lost your eyesight just before you gave your SATs and applied to colleges. To what extent was that problem further exacerbated by the fact that it happened when you were in such a critical phase of your life?
That is a great question. The funny thing is that the mechanics of being blind at the time weren’t new to me. My eyesight was pretty poor and I had limited eyesight at that time. The way I will describe my eyesight prior to the operation is I was still able to play video games by getting right up close to the television and I was still able to ride a bicycle by looking at the difference between the color of the street – the macadam as opposed to the colour of the curb. I had very limited eyesight and I used it to the best of my ability. At that time it was still pretty limited and so, I had to learn how to use Braille from an early age and learn how to use a screen reader as well. But also had to learn how to use a cane. Although, up to the time, I lost my eyesight, I was not particularly interested in using any of those tools. I tried to get by as best as I could without using any of those tools. So, the first very significant exam I took when I was visually impaired and completely blind was the SAT. So, I was a bit slower than I probably could have been had I practiced more with Braille.
- You got into Harvard nonetheless, so you must have done well, I’m sure.
Well (laughs). I’m sure that there was someone watching over me at that time. But yes, I tried my best and did the best I could with what I had at that time.
- Did you give your SAT on a computer with a screen reader or did you have a scribe for the exam?
This was in 1991. I don’t believe computers at that time, as far as I’m aware were being offered as an option for the SAT and I certainly wasn’t provided that option. I took the test in Braille and typed the answers on a Braille typewriter and then transcribed the answers via a sighted reader.
- So that must have been a very cumbersome process I imagine because the way people in India typically give exams now is either on a computer or with a scribe. But to have to first figure it out on your own with the use of Braille and then to dictate the answer to a scribe would have taken a lot more time than the average person?
Yes, I think it was certainly an obstacle that you just kind of live with. You say this is the way it is. You say that you can either choose to do your best or you don’t choose to do the best. I chose to just do my best and it did take longer. Thankfully, at the time I took the SAT it was mostly multiple choice, so there weren’t a lot of essay questions at that time. But that did become an issue later on when doing some of the law school exams, but at that time it was mostly multiple choice.
- You have stated that the bar examination is highly inaccessible. You were made to use a tape player, instead of a computer with screen reading technology, when you appeared for the exam. In India, the law school entrance test that we have, called CLAT, has similarly been designed in ways that make it partially inaccessible for students with disabilities in that they are asked to answer questions that require you to possess the ability to think spatially. This being the case, can you tell us what coping strategies did you adopt to clear the bar examination, and what strategies would you recommend for making standardized tests in the legal profession more accessible?
I could talk for months on this topic. I think the main coping strategy that I took was to practice as much as I could. To get so good at doing the types of questions I would be asked that it was almost a reflex to go into the mode to answer the question. To answer your broader question about the types of things that would have been helpful, let me just kind of give a sense for folks who may not be visually impaired what it is like to take the test in the format that I took it. You are right in saying that for the multi-State exam in the US, which is the test that every lawyer takes regardless of which State you take it in. There is, I believe a 200 question multiple choice test. Large portions of it require you to read passages and then extract from those passages answers to various multiple choice questions. I took the test on a cassette player which required me to listen to a reader reading the test. Now I could fast forward and rewind but I would describe this as best I could as taking the test on a one line teleprompter. So, you only get a very small portion of what you need to read and answer at any given time. So, when you read a passage you get to the end of the passage, and then you get to the question and then to find the answer to the question you’ve got to rewind the tape and then fast forward to figure out what the answers were and oh, if you missed the answer (c), you don’t remember what it said, you got to go back to find answer (c) and then go back to the text to find the answer. So it is like taking the test on a one line tele prompter. I think the thing I had at that time tried to petition for with the National Conference of Board Examiners which administers the multi-State is the ability to take the test using a computer. The reason I did is because I felt like that was what I would be judged by and that was what the mechanism I would be using to do my work as a lawyer rather than using a tape player. I would be using a screen reader and computer and so I felt like that it was only fair for me to be judged based on the tools I would be using. I fought for that for quite a number of months and it didn’t prevail. So, I said at that time to myself that I have a choice – I have a choice to fail the exam and take some kind of legal action but that was not very palatable to me. So, I said why don’t I study as hard as I can and do as many practice questions as I can to sort of make it reflexive in terms of the types of approach I took to the questions, the types of notes I took along the way, the things I would look out for and tried to remember when I was reading the passage so that I only had to read it once. I did a lot of practice and did quite well on the multi-State and didn’t have to resort to the option where you failed and try to seek some kind of remedial action.
- You hold degrees in computer science from Harvard University and University of California, Berkeley and you completed your JD from the Fordham University School of Law. Can you briefly describe to us the reasonable accommodation provided by your universities? More specifically, persons with disabilities are typically discouraged from pursuing a career in STEM subjects because it is widely believed that they are more inaccessible than subjects in the humanities and arts streams. As someone who has pursued both kinds of courses, does your own experience bear this out?
That’s a great question. I will start from the reverse, I think your initial question was what were combinations like at the various institutions? By the time I got to law school, you have to remember that a number of years had passed by. I attended law school starting in 2002 at Fordham University. At that time, publishers were mindful enough especially in the legal field about the need to provide their materials in electronic format. That was a great advantage to what had happened to prior. I got most of my law school texts fairly on time, I’d say up to a month after the semester began perhaps in some kind of readable format whether it would be Microsoft Word or PDF. I might have to do my own conversion of the PDF but relatively readable compared to the previous. In Berkeley, at graduate school, I was a Computer Science Masters student and the materials at that time primarily were not book materials because I was in graduate school. A lot more of the materials were materials that the Professor provided. So they had access to the electronic version of the materials as far as I recall. There might have been some text materials but I don’t think I had access to all of those materials.
I think the stark contrast you will see is to the undergrad experience which followed along much more closely to the experience that I had with the bar exam after graduating from law school. At that time, going to a humanities school which Harvard is even though I studied Computer Science I had to take quite a number of humanities classes, there were a lot of reading materials and it was on the order of maybe 12 – 13 books a semester, which is a six month period. I remember at that time, remembering that many of the classes that I took, I didn’t have the books for the entire of the semester let alone having the books in time for the class which discussed the books. So, I was always 2 – 4 weeks if not more behind in terms of the reading as compared to the rest of students.
I just thank God that I was able to retain what I retained in class and the little reading I was able to do was enough to get me by, if you will. But, in terms of your question about STEM subjects versus the Humanities subjects, I would say that at the time that I was an undergrad, I don’t think there was much of a difference. The texts just simply weren’t available in computer format or Braille format or any other format other than having volunteer readers to read the information at whatever pace they were able to get volunteers at.
- A large number of law students and lawyers with disabilities struggle to deliver their assignments with the level of exactitude that is expected from their able-bodied counterparts. For instance, citing footnotes in the manner prescribed by the Bluebook or formatting documents accurately or using the track change function which has different colour codes for insertion/deletions are three very significant challenges. Can you tell us how you dealt with these challenges and share some pointers to help law students decide what tasks they should strive to perform on their own and what tasks they should obtain sighted assistance for?
Absolutely, there are couple of pieces to the question you have asked. Bluebooking is particularly a special case because the formatting of the Bluebook is important and so obtaining that in some kind of format that is usable by someone who is visually impaired is very challenging. Not sure that I ever managed to get the Bluebook in an accessible format. I think I had to rely on others to help me understand what the general rules were of where to underline, what to capitalize, where the periods were and then I was able to read other materials that were produced to see what the format was. So, I think one pointer is that there are online resources such as Lexis Nexis or Westlaw in the United States where you can read cases and you can see proper Bluebooking formats. The other option is to have someone who is a more mature law student or even a lawyer to kind of just give you the high level of “this is where the spacing goes, this is where the underlines go”. That’s for the Bluebooking piece of it and that’s going to continue to be a challenge I think for people with disabilities in terms of not necessarily being able to complete the task but being able to do it efficiently because it takes a long time to read each character, each word if you will and the formatting that is associated with it.
Now, when it comes to track changes, this was an area that I had to really work hard to overcome when I was a lawyer. I think that the JAWS screen reader does the best job of presenting the track changes in a way that is useful. I think I was able to find a mode in JAWS where it would read line by line and tell me how many edits and how many track changes there were in a particular line of text and I could go word by word to read what the changes were. That was a nice easy way and I think they have another function where you can jump to the next revision. In any case, that was helpful but it is still very very slow.
Where it really matters is in real time activities like negotiating a contract – I have negotiated large contracts – 40 – 50 pages, a 100 pages and wanting to be able to be on a call and at the same time being able to jump to various revisions knowing what the previous texts said and knowing what my revisions were and to where we want to get to in the negotiation. My method was to takes notes ahead of time on all of the track changes, going provision by provision and writing what the previous statement said and what I wanted it to say. So, during the call I didn’t have to struggle through reading the revisions, I could just look at my notes. On the whole that was very useful because I didn’t have to waste time having JAWS read the specific line and the specific revisions and then keeping in my head what it said before and after – I kind of preprocessed all of that information ahead of time. So, in the real time scenario I think that doing some of the pre-work ahead of time can be very useful.
- As a practical matter, to what extent do you think should law students in general strive to perform tasks such as Bluebooking accurately by themselves in contradistinction to obtaining assistance?
Like it or not, you are going to be judged by the quality of the work that you produce. If you are asked to make a note on a given subject, the partner for whom you are making the note may know nothing about the subject matter of the note, but they do know the Bluebook or they know about formatting in general. So your work is going to be judged based on how well you do that kind of work. I do not like depending on other people to the extent that I can help it, so I might have a sighted person look at it a couple of times and tell me, “Hey, you made this mistake consistently.” As a practical matter, though it’s important to know how to do it, once you do it, it’s always useful to have someone check your work to ensure that you’re presenting it in the best possible light.
- In order to succeed at the bar, good client relationships are of paramount importance. In the course of your career, have you faced situations where people were apprehensive about hiring a blind lawyer? How did you convince them to trust you with their cases?
This is a very multi-faceted question. I think to answer your question, in the initial, I don’t believe in and this is not saying that I’m better than anybody else, I don’t believe that at any time that anybody has actually physically met me have they ever had a question about whether I could do the law or has had a question about how I could do the work. I may be generalizing, but I believe that people who are visually impaired have an extreme advantage when it comes to client relationships because one of the things that we do particularly well and maybe I’m only speaking for my self is that we listen very well and we pick up on very nuanced pieces of what people are saying and are also able to express ourselves in our speech in a way that we want other people to hear us. I think that because we pay so much attention to sound we also have a huge advantage when it comes to communication. I’ve really tried to leverage that as much as I could, in my interviews, in many client calls, even in negotiations, to try to provide an advantage to myself in that way. To summarize, when folks have had a chance to actually meet me and I think this will be the same for others, it has not been an obstacle. I think what has been an obstacle is once you actually get the job. Once you actually get the job, there are a lot of obstacles that come into play in terms of people perceiving your ability to do the work. It is an odd kind of circumstance where you know I might be able to get the job but then have difficulty in terms of convincing people that I can actually continue to do the job.
This kind of brings about an interesting question about disclosure and my view has always been to disclose first because I don’t feel like it is fair to the employer to have a misapprehension about what my limitations or what my perceived limitations might be. My job is always to demonstrate or to signify that there is something different about me and then to blow their socks off in the interview by what I can say. I will give you an interesting example, when I actually applied to the current role that I have now, when I applied to Google, I was very explicit in terms of my visual disability. I had recently completed an Olympic length triathlon in New York and there was some news press that had been written about me and I included the article as part of the application because I wanted to set the stage, I wanted to say “Yes, I’m visually impaired but look what I can do”. So, I wanted to challenge their view on what I can do as a visually impaired persons and I entered every interview with, “Yes I know you are going to think that I’m visually impaired, but I’m going to impress you with the kinds of communication skills as well as the kind of legal skills that I have”.
- You have been working with Google for the past six years and have spoken about your manager being sensitive towards your needs. For a person with a disability to succeed at the workplace, it is imperative for the higher management to be accommodating. In your opinion, what should one do when someone higher up in the organizational hierarchy is not accommodating, uninformed, and biased, especially when you are not high up in the pecking order?
Wow, that is a tough question. I don’t know if I honestly have a great answer to that but I think one thing that is critical is to find somebody in the organization that can vouch for you. If they don’t know the work you do, just the fact that they know the type of person that you are, something about you that they can vouch for you. It does not even have to be someone, as you say, high in the pecking order but somebody who can really vouch for you. Because them putting their name behind you or them putting their reputation next to you can be hugely advantageous to you. Now, I think that of course education and awareness of the challenges that you face is imperative to demonstrate and often times that has to go through your immediate supervisor to the next level above you. But I think demonstrating that even at a very low level like – “here is a brief – look how fast you read it and look how fast I can read it and look at the kind of things I have to overcome”. Just to give them an eye into your world often times makes them think, “Oh, man! That is incredible. How can that person do all of that”. It gains you respect and shows people some of the challenges that you have and at the same time, like I said, finding people in the organization that you can call your allies. I don’t think this is an area that I’m super great at and I think this is just an area you have to grow over a period of time, and I’m still in the learning process.
- Employers often try to downplay the importance of your disability. While we think it is a desirable approach in a variety of circumstances where you want to be judged by how competent and efficient you are and not by your disability, as Judge Tatel told us. But in a number of circumstances, that can also be a disadvantage or an obstacle because, if you are a person with a disability who has to face some sui generis challenges that an average sighted person does not, and, if someone simply refuses to acknowledge the proposition that you have to face more challenges and that things are more difficult for you and that you do things in a different way, then it can be very difficult to have a constructive conversation with such an individual. Is that something you’ve faced or have any views about?
I’m not sure that I have had that direct issue but I can say that “hiding” your disability is more problematic than good. I will say that in the United States at least companies are so keen on having a diverse workplace in all senses of the word and they also push their law firms to be diverse. I think having a disability and demonstrating that to the client can be hugely advantageous. And they may not have people with disabilities in their own organization and here is this lawyer who can provide advice to them and “Wow! Look they have a disability.” Yes, you are playing off the whole disability thing but honestly, companies want that. Companies want to see that law firms are reaching out and are themselves being diverse. It can be an advantage in that way. Certainly you don’t want your relationship with your client to stay there. You want to impress them in ways that makes them come back to you over and over again. And working in-house at a company is very similar. When I first meet my new teams or new project managers who I work with, I’m sure what goes through their mind is “Hey, how do I interact with this person. Even on a very basic level, what word should I say” or “If I come meet with them face to face, do I have to show them to the chair?” I just treat myself like I’m any other person. Sometimes I ask for help, sometimes I don’t, I break the ice. Overtime none of them has ever thought of me as an attorney who is blind, they think of me as an attorney first and sometimes I happen to need help to doing extra things. Like for example today, I had to ask somebody to send me links to a number of pages because I could not access them. The project manager was happy to do that. It just becomes a part of our relationship and it becomes a part of something that they can do to help me be more effective at helping them. I think to answer your broader question, I think that hiding it in general to me has been more of a problem than it has been of help.
- Would you agree that your ability to get your needs met is contingent upon the relationship that you have with your employer as opposed to anti-discrimination laws or progressive societal views?
Absolutely. Laws are really the least common denominator. If you share a good relationship with an employer, they are likely to go way beyond what is mandated by the law to help you. It’s like any interpersonal relationship; if you know your neighbor, you are more likely to help them than a random stranger.
- A critical skill that every successful patent attorney must possess is the ability to fully grasp patent illustrations/drawings of an invention and to acquire a nuanced appreciation of the technical minutiae of the invention concerned. Lawyers with disabilities may not be able to fully grasp different dimensions of the drawings and acquire a spatial understanding of their subject matter. What approach do you adopt to better understand content in patent applications, which are prima facie inaccessible?
Great question. And I love the way you put it that they are “prima facie inaccessible”. Because anyone who is listening knows anything about patent application, the citations to patent applications refer to columns and line numbering which appear in the graphical PDF version of the patent application and is completely inaccessible and impossible to derive even with OCR. So, I’m glad you put it that way. I think one of the great advantages though of working in patent law is something called the written description requirement which is a part of US Patent Law. So, that basically means that in the written description part of the application, you have to describe everything in full enough detail so that someone could appreciate it. So, I will say that for the vast majority of patents I have ever read I never had to look at any pictures. It would say things like “from Network 40, you have connected Servers 50, 60 and 70 and Server 70 has components, 80, 90 and 100”. So, you know exactly what’s inside each component, you just have to be able to remember it and keep it in your head. Having a great memory is really important for that. But I will say that also one part of being a patent lawyer is being able to draft the drawing for the patent applications because if you are a patent drafter, you have to be able to produce the drawings. One of the things I developed was a kind of description language for how I wanted the drawings to be done. For most part in the technology area where I was which was the computer field, most of the drawings were of the flow chart type of drawings – it was mostly boxes and lines representing various components. It was easy for me to describe in a chart, say for example with several columns, the first column being the number for the item, the second was the name of the item, the third was, what type of connection it had to the next item and that might be a double arrow, a single arrow or a solid line and then the fourth column would be what it is connected to. For example, in a flow chart you might have “Box 10 says if value = x” and the next column would say with a right arrow, “Go to Box 60”. By this, people who were sighted, even my administrator or my secretary was able to turn that into an electronic drawing and then afterwards, we would review it together and make sure that it said what it had to. I used some kind of technique like that to figure out a way to draft the drawings. Now, there are some drawings of course in some of the other fields such as mechanical drawings that are much harder with different views and honestly at those times, I had to rely on a paralegal to help me to just interpret and understand the various components and then I would just take notes to be able to refer to it. But that one was a bit tougher, I really had to have someone help me to understand them.
- You travel independently to and from work in NYC which, at least to an outsider, appears to be an exceptionally fast-paced metropolis. Do you feel that it is relatively hard to navigate independently in bigger metros, and how do you grapple with the problem of unsolicited,albeit well-intentioned, offers of assistance from sighted people?
Such a relevant question! It feels like you looked inside my head and you understand the kinds of things I think about! (Laughs). Well, I will say this – It has been said that if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere. I really do believe that that’s true – New York is a very unique place. Maybe there are other places in the world that are similar, but it is an extremely fast paced place. People don’t have time to do anything including the time to read the news while they are sitting at home. So, they read the news on their phone while they are walking. Now that probably happens in a lot of places in the world but it’s particularly exacerbated at rush hour in New York. But I will say this, I think that there are difficulties in navigating almost where ever you go. So, I travel to California on a regular basis for work and California is also a very spread out – wide sidewalk kind of environment. But it is very hard for a very different reason, it is very hard because you can’t walk anywhere, and it is the kind of culture where you have to drive everywhere. So, you get to spread out and there is lots of room, but then the more densely packed you get, the more people you get. That presents a different problem, which is, you get all these people reading the news on their phone, not looking where they are going, or just generally not paying attention or not being concerned. And then you will also get into the scaffolding of the construction that is around and other barriers that get put into place because it is a densely populated place. No matter where you are, I’m sure people would agree, it is a challenge no matter where you are. Let me lead off by saying that.
And then to your question about, what is it like to get help. I will be the first one to admit that this is an area that I struggle with. And the reason I struggle with it is, if you look at it from the perspective of somebody who is offering help, they have every good intention. There is absolutely nothing wrong in my view with what they are doing. Now, I will get to that in a little bit. But from the person’s perspective of who gets the help offered to them, they may get it 15, 20, 30 times a day and so what happens in the psychology of the person is they start saying to themselves, something like “Hey, I don’t think I need help but if all these other people are telling me that I need help, do I really need help? Is there something wrong with me that I actually really need help” and you fight the war against yourself because there is this part of you which tells you that “I’m independent” but then there is another part of you which is responding to all of the offers for help and saying “No, you actually do need the help”. That is a very difficult thing for me to honestly reconcile with myself and I do struggle with that very topic.
One of the thing I would love for the non-disabled population to know is that it is absolutely okay for someone who is visually impaired to make a mistake. It is absolutely okay, for example, if you are looking for a badge reader for a door to feel around. That is not a problem! That is just the way we interact with our environment. It is okay if we walk into an elevator and we feel for the buttons on the wrong side of the elevator. It is just how we learn. We will learn for the next time that is where the buttons really are. But we need to learn to make those mistakes. We need to be given the freedom to make those mistakes so that we can learn and it is okay to let people flounder. I think it is very uncomfortable for people who are non-disabled to see someone who is disabled floundering. But it is really okay and I think that is a really important lesson that I wish that more people would understand.
- In addition to being an exceptional patent attorney, you have also competed in marathons and ironman triathlons. Can you share with us some strategies that you adopt to make recreational activities accessible to you?
Wow, there have been so many. But the primary one is to find somebody else who you can work with to accomplish a lot of those things. Running a marathon or doing a triathlon, all of it, for now, requires help from somebody else to do the activity with you. So, finding someone who also loves to run or in case of a triathlon who also loves to bike and swim and run, that is the best thing. And there are organizations around, one of the largest one is one called the Achilles Track Club or Achilles International, started by a veteran who decided that they wanted to run a marathon after losing one or both legs in war and did it. And then started this organization to help other people, veterans included, to be able to accomplish things in sport. So, that’s primarily the one – is finding somebody who loves to do what you do and doing it together. More as a partnership rather than them just helping you. Certainly, you will find in the sports community, lots of people who really want to be able to help other people to accomplish something. That is great. I think that the greatest thing is to be able to develop friendships and relations with these people because you both love to do the same thing together and you both love to do it for a very long time together and you are going to spend a lot of time together and so, hopefully, you will get along really well. For example, one of my guides who I did the New York City Iron Man triathlon with, his name is Gene Gurkoff, we connected through Achilles and we became really good friends and we spent hours and hours riding bikes together and running together and developed a great relationship. That was the most rewarding part of it. In terms of other techniques, there is not a lot beyond enjoying what you do and there are always technical ways to get around. Like I always rode a tandem bike and when I was swimming, I was always tethered with a rope to the guide, and they would swim in front and I would swim behind and followed their feet with my hands. There are technical ways to do all of these things but really the key is finding somebody who loves to do what you do and building relationships with them and then also, the added benefit that a lot of them get a great sense of satisfaction by helping someone who is visually impaired to accomplish things that they might not otherwise be able to accomplish.
- Even though the legal profession is intrinsically more accessible than, say, physics or chemistry, the way in which it is practiced sometimes makes it highly inaccessible. For instance, in India, lawyers are required to read large chunks of information verbatim from their written submissions during oral arguments for the consideration of the court. How, specifically, do you think a lawyer with a disability should address these structural barriers in a concrete and robust fashion?
Certainly for me, I’m not good at reading things verbatim. I cannot listen to a screen reader and repeat things back that is nearly impossible. Most of my experience has not been at the court. Most of my experience has been at delivering live presentations. I have been known to bring someone along with me and I would say “So and so would you mind reading this quote” and they will do that. I don’t mind getting help in that particular case because I don’t want to be so independent that the content of what I’m reading gets lost in the fact that I have to pause and listen to the screen reader and repeat back what it said and probably do it wrong. I’d rather have the content come across okay and so, in those particular situations, I’m totally fine, finding even someone in the audience to participate and read the quotes. I’m not sure how that would work in a court. You might have to have a paralegal come with you. But I can’t imagine that a judge would be opposed to having someone read the quotes for you.
- Do you use braille at all when you give presentations?
I never have, although I have been realizing that maybe it is something I should look into. Because I do find myself not being as fluid as I could be having to use a screen reader. No one has ever complained and my presentations have gone over pretty smoothly. But I do feel like it is area I can improve in.
- There is a widely held belief that a blind lawyer typically has to work twice as hard as their sighted counterparts in order to obtain the desired professional outcomes because of accessibility barriers. To what extent would you subscribe to this view?
Absolutely. I think there is no question – things take longer. We have been talking about Bluebooking and formatting for example, it takes an enormous amount of time to do that kind of stuff. But there are things that are faster too.If you are able to, for example, read using a screen reader at a very high rate, you can read a lot faster than other people. So, I try to take advantage of as many of those little tricks that I can to be efficient, to counter balance the other pieces of it. Obviously, one of the things that I have done and many blind people have done is to use your memory, to be able to remember facts of cases and not even have to look it up, just kind of pull it up, on the fly. That is very useful.
- Would you say that it is much easier for a lawyer with a disability to function more efficiently and effectively when they are higher up in the pecking order as opposed to, say, being an intern or a first-year associate. Why is this the case, and do you have any advice for younger lawyers with disabilities who are just starting out?
I would really say, think about what you want to do long term and start working towards them. Because I think for a young lawyer, one of the things that is hard to do is, to flounder around and not be sure of what you want to do and not develop the skills that you need to in order to get to where you want to go. You can flounder around like that 4-5 years in a firm and kind of just understanding where you want to get to is really useful and then finding people who you connect with and who are already at the level you want to be at and give you some perspective on the things you want to do can probably save you a lot of time in terms of spinning your wheels and doing the kinds of activities that won’t be helpful. I think this is something that I never really took advantage of. I wish I had done more of it. At that time, I was more concerned about, putting my head down and making sure I cranked out 1500-1800-2000 hours a year rather than thinking more holistically about what I really wanted out of the future and first of all understanding if that is the future I wanted and if it was the future I wanted, how I could position myself to get there. I wasn’t very good at that at that time. Things might have been very different if I had been more strategic about the kinds of projects that I got myself into and the partners I aligned myself with. But I didn’t do that at that time.
- Who has been your biggest inspiration till date?
(Laughs) Gosh, that is such a hard question. There are two people I can name. One is my wife who has always been the one to continue to see the best in me even though I have not always been able to do that. She always continues to try to make me better than what I could be. I really respect the fact that she is always with me and able to do that.
Another one is my parents. I just look at the kinds of lives they have lived. They are immigrants from overseas to the United States. My father came to the United States and didn’t speak much English but managed to graduate at the top of his class in naval architecture from the University of Michigan and I say to myself “Well, if he can do that, I can do what I’m doing” It’s very inspirational to me that both my parents came to the United States without speaking much of the language and were able to make a great life for themselves and were really able to help us. They were also the first model I had to understand how to deal with disability. It never fazed them. I remember my mom said that when she found out that both my brother and I had a disability, she said she cried for a while and then one day she woke and said, “Crying is not going to help. I’m just going to make them be the best that they can be”. She never let up. So, that gives me the same perspective on my life because I really never let up. I think those are the three people I would say that have really been my inspiration.
- What has been your most challenging assignment till date?
Yes, I will say, the first time I had to do a document review was incredibly difficult from an accessibility standpoint. I remember that almost nothing was accessible. I believe the software I was using at that time was called Summation. I couldn’t make heads or tails of it. I was having to do things, if anyone is very familiar with JAWS they’ll know, sometimes you need to make the mouse cursor move over stuff that is not speaking to you. To memorize the number of clicks that you move in order to get to a certain button you need to press. So, doing stuff like that without voice feedback was incredibly difficult. And then the documents you would be reading would not be accessible.You would have to convert each one and then being in fear all the time, that there are drawings you can’t OCR and what are you missing there. There is always this feeling that the tools you are using are completely wrong for me and I can’t make heads or tails of it. But, you really just use that as opportunities to work hard to finding solutions. In a way, it was the hardest thing that I had to do and the volume of the work and being able to keep up with other people, say who in 1 day reviewed 2000 documents and I wanted to make sure that I was somewhere at least in the ballpark of doing the same things. I think it made me more ingenious on how to find solutions to some of these challenges.
- You have achieved a lot in life. What keeps you going? What keeps you motivated to achieve these feats that we generally don’t hear of other persons with disabilities achieving?
You are much too kind. Honestly, the way I look at my own life is I enjoy achievement. I think that God has made me the kind of person who has the mission in life to demonstrate to people what the capabilities of someone with a disability is and I really want to fulfill that calling of my life. I think it is just the calling of my life to be able to find something that is hard to do and to go and do it. The first time I decide to do something, like for example, to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro or to do an Ironman, I never think for a moment that I can’t do it. I never think that there is anything I can’t do. The only thing that comes to mind is “How am I going to do it?” It is just built into me now that I feel like I just have this calling to show the world what someone who is blind can do. It is never a question of whether I can do something or not it is just how I’m going to do it. Now, of course there are limitations, I would love to be able to fly a plane and maybe I will figure out a way to do it one day. Again, nothing is off the table, nothing is off the table for me.
The IDIA Disability Access Programme (IDAP) has launched a first of its kind initiative of interviewing disabled lawyers in all spheres of the legal profession (teaching, advocacy, litigation, corporate, etc.). The IDAP interview series aims to solicit actionable insights from lawyers with disabilities on the strategies adopted by them to excel in their field. The series also seeks to educate and increase awareness within the legal fraternity, with the ultimate aim of fostering meaningful dialogue on reasonable accommodation for persons with disabilities.
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