June 14, 2013 — As a legally blind young lawyer, I have not always found the legal profession especially welcoming. First, there’s the “problem” of my being a woman. Nearly half of all law school graduates are women; far fewer remain in the profession, let alone go on to be partners or judges.
And then there’s the “problem” of my being a person with a disability. I started losing my vision during my senior year of college; by the time I got to law school, I was legally blind. The American Bar Association Disability Statistics Report estimates the number of lawyers with disabilities to be between 2 and 3 percent.
It should be noted that the employment rate for people with disabilities in any field is abysmal, but there are some particularly huge roadblocks barring entry to the legal profession.
Access to a legal career is bookended by two standardized tests: the LSAT to get into law school and the bar exam to get licensed as a lawyer. Standardized tests have long been a stumbling block for those not considered “standard” by the test creators, and the rigid method of test-taking excludes people who, for various reasons, can’t simply sit down and take a timed pencil-and-paper test.
The first time I took the LSAT, my vision was normal, and the process of signing up for and taking the exam was so unremarkable I barely remember it. Several years later, when I wanted to retake the LSAT, I was legally blind. Applying to take the LSAT with accommodations was an ordeal. In addition to the expected medical records, I had to submit more academic records and paperwork than I did the first time. Ultimately, the accommodations I was offered were insufficient, and I didn’t take the test. Had I taken it, my score would have had a giant asterisk next to it, alerting all law school admissions offices that I had taken the test under “unusual” circumstances—as though a low-vision person taking a large-print test were on par with a pro athlete taking performance-enhancing drugs. As a newly disabled person, I was both acquiescent and outraged: I accepted this administrative bullying and raged at my own body for causing so much trouble and setting me apart. I had a real forehead-smacking moment years later, when lawsuits against the Law School Admission Council (LSAC) brought by other visually impaired test-takers gained publicity. It had never occurred to my younger self that (a) LSAC’s policies weren’t just aggravating; they were discriminatory, and (b) they could be changed.
Four years later, when I took part in a lawsuit brought against the National Council of Bar Examiners, which administers the licensing exam lawyers must take in all 50 states in order to practice law, I was much wiser, albeit not much more successful. Two other blind/low-vision law students and I had requested to take the bar exam in Maryland using computers with software that reads text out loud. This is how we had done our work and taken our exams throughout law school. The NCBE argued that letting us use computers was unfair and would compromise the security of the test. Flattered as I was to be mistaken for a world-class computer hacker, I failed to convince the NCBE that there wasn’t much damage I could do with a Word document and a laptop disconnected from the Internet. Never mind that every year, students taking the test the old-fashioned way manage to cheat and even steal copies of the test. The position of the judge who threw out the case was that we should be grateful for any accommodations at all. The accommodations I did receive took the form of a series of kindly but inept human readers who took turns reading the bar exam to me, poorly—stumbling over the words, taking personal phone calls as I pondered my answers, and forgetting their reading glasses.
It’s not that disabled people are invisible to the legal community; on the contrary, a huge industry has sprung up around disability law. But while many lawyers advocate for the rights of clients with disabilities, the larger legal community still seems unprepared to accept lawyers with disabilities.
At its best, the American legal system seeks to promote justice and equality for all. But it’s easiest to treat everyone equally when everyone is the same. The challenge lies in accepting and accommodating—even one day celebrating!—our differences.