Roger Chard at Parry Peak, Colorado
My father was totally blind and was educated at the Michigan School for the Blind. He earned bachelors and masters degrees in music from Michigan State University and the University of Michigan. He taught at the Michigan School for the Blind, primarily as music director, from 1939 to 1977. I was young enough when I went blind that I do not recall seeing.
Other than part time attendance at a public school in my junior and senior years, I was educated at the Michigan School for the Blind before mandatory special education, so I was not mainstreamed (as once known), or “included” as now known. I earned a bachelor’s degree in social science from Michigan State University in 1969 and a law degree from the University of Michigan in 1972. I practiced law in Ann Arbor, Michigan for thirty-eight years and was the only blind attorney in Ann Arbor for that entire time. With the indispensable reading assistance of my mother, college undergraduates, and others, I was formally educated and practiced law for fifteen years before software and adaptive devices became available that converted print to speech, that let me echo my type strokes and read what I was typing, let me accelerate speech without increasing its pitch, and that allowed me access to virtually every local and online mode of communication available to anyone else.
My father lost his sight from retinoblastoma, and so did I. He and my mother came from Michigan Upper Peninsula mining country, and they instilled in me redeeming grit, determination, and self-reliance that, to this day, one finds in abundance in the UP. They grew up during the Great Depression, and they proudly exhibited the style of that era – making one’s way with limited resources, with few if any second chances, with tough mindedness, by asking for and giving no quarter. They wanted me to learn as best I could, to be every bit the student and person that my sighted peers were, to be involved in a variety of activities outside of school, and to do everything well in which I was involved. They wanted me to live a well-rounded life and their exacting, though not unreasonably demanding, personalities made that happen.
I entered kindergarten at four, and my father already had taught me a lot of Braille. I began piano lessons at age five. I went to summer school in second grade to learn to type. When I later typed assignments and made mistakes, type-overs were not acceptable, retyping the assignment was. That was a hallmark of my dad when I played French horn in his band. He was a driller: “We’ll play it until we get it right.” I learn and practice music that way to this very day and carried some of that approach into practicing law.
My parents encouraged me to join the School for the Blind’s first debate team, but the coach left after two years and the team disbanded. A coach at one of Lansing’s public high schools asked me to debate for him, and my parents arranged for me to attend both schools and debate for the public school, with which school I was a varsity member of the 1965 Michigan State Championship team.
While growing up, I walked all over Lansing with my dad, spent time climbing bridges, walking railroad tracks and narrow, shaky, unguarded catwalks, riding switch engines, doing much that now is prohibited, but also learning how to travel independently. It was assumed that I would go to college, but to which one was not clear until Michigan State University recruited me to attend school and debate there. But I had to choose a major among music, teaching, or pre-law.
Twelve years of piano study, seven years of French horn study, playing French horn and tuba in my father’s school for the blind concert and marching band (one of only three such marching bands in the U.S.), singing in high school chorus all pointed me to music, but debating, interest in things political, the chance to teach or go to law school prevailed.
I majored in history, sociology, and political science at MSU, sang with the men’s glee club, debated there for four years, was named national college speaker of the year in 1969, traveled extensively with the debate team and glee club, loved every minute of my four college years, and went on to Michigan for law school. My dad was a band director who always had wanted to sing, and at his urging, I took my first private voice lesson after graduating from college.
Blindness was not a permitted excuse to do something less well than I could. My father firmly believed that he and I must do things twice as well as our sighted counterparts to be regarded as their equal. I worked under the pressure of academic, piano, French horn, debate, and choral performance, and those pressures, the lessons from my parents of how to approach everything I undertook, and my own competitive nature got me through growing up and gave me a tough-minded foundation for moving into and through the workaday world, made me eager to pursue vocal study and performance, and to start downhill skiing after age forty.
I got married in the summer before entering law school, remained married until 2004, and became the father of two boys, Brendan and Devin, one of whom went into business for himself, the other of whom became a police officer with the Las Vegas Police Department.
Challenges encountered as a blind lawyer
(1) From the start of college, the toughest thing was keeping up. In law school, case books, as law school textbooks are known, constantly change as statutes, case law, administrative rules and regulations change. Even if a case book had been recorded (a rare thing when I went to law school), it almost certainly would not be the edition used in a class I would be taking. Professors naturally insisted on using the most up to date case books and also passed out many reprints of recently published case opinions, new or recently revised statutes, rules, and regulations, along with new articles discussing these materials. I relied on my mother and other readers to read to me in person or to record the materials I had to read for college, law school, and the first fifteen years of law practice, but there was no way I could get a class assignment and get it recorded or read to me in time to be ready every day for class.
Reading quantities and deadlines sometimes were a challenge in practicing law, too. My reading speed was limited to the pace of the given reader, and if I wanted to increase the speed of recorded material, I had to turn up the speed of the tape recorder and put up with the much higher pitch of the sound; it was a bit like listening to Donald Duck. I borrowed $25,000, computerized in 1988 and got the benefit of digital reading from screen reader software which read everything that came to the computer screen and from scanners that allowed me to put a print document on the scanner lens, push a button, and have the print converted to speech. Other controls in these programs and on these machines let me increase speed and volume as I chose (default reading speed was 400-425 words per minute), without increasing pitch. I could have my type strokes echoed so that I always knew what I had just typed and where I was in a document, I could word process, convert documents to Braille, Braille them out with a Braille printer, and I was able to get online like anyone else (having learned to type at age eight was valuable). This also meant I could cut back on hiring readers.
(2) A second challenge was being comfortable with an ever-expanding world of photography and other technologies. I had to be sure that people on whom I relied to describe things to me were competent to the level I could trust. I could not risk being under prepared and/or uncomfortable in working with exhibits that were or might be part of a court hearing or trial. That meant being sure to have someone I trusted available to provide sighted assistance in situations where I thought it might be needed. Like life in general, anticipation was the key to addressing these concerns in law practice. Similarly, I could not afford to have clients be wary of my ability to work with items that were or might become an important part of their proceedings. An attorney dealing with any critical element of a presentation–photographs, physical equipment, workings of a process, the way in which a structure is arranged – must learn about that element to the maximum level of understanding, and sometimes lack of sight made learning a little slower going than if I had been sighted.
(3) A third challenge was relating to people when I could not see them – clients, jurors, witnesses, opposition attorneys, judges, court personnel. But everyone has his or her own way of assessing people, and that simply was something I had to deal with in ways that let me compensate for not seeing. There are work-arounds on which I have relied throughout my life for this compensation. Listening is an enormous key. People pay very little attention to their own voices, for example, and one who pays a lot of attention to voices can acquire a lot of information about a person he or she doesn’t even realize they are divulging. Are there cues I might have noticed had I been able to see someone, of course, but I never have seen, I always have had to make up for visual cues that may not be known to me, and I have not beat myself up over what I cannot control, might be missing, to the possible exclusion of what I can control. Reading available background information was very important, too.
(4) A fourth challenge was understanding the physical layout of a space. It might have been where an important object was located and how it operated within the location. It might have been a new courtroom and how I could operate within it. Taking the time to visit the location and ask questions in advance, taking time to visit the courtroom and walk around in it before appearing for a hearing or a trial were critical to being prepared and being comfortable. Early on I realized preparation was absolutely crucial and I never wanted anyone to think I was not prepared because of being blind. Of course, this also has been true for undertakings outside law practice–music performances, theatrical appearances, presentations of any type.
I have been blind all my life, so I never really thought about approaching law practice in a manner distinctly different than I thought about doing anything else.
I identified what had to be done and then set about doing it in the best way the tools I had would allow. I have been blessed with a good memory, I had a good command of Braille, I sought to be as independent as possible in mastering what I could do without the assistance of others, I insisted on surrounding myself with the best quality support I could obtain, and I always sought to develop and cultivate good networking. Memory was key to smoothly functioning. I always have carried a lot in my head and not counted on just being able to find something or look it up when needed. Many people close a file folder, and the matter is out of sight, out of mind. I never have been able to operate that way. Lots of things come up repeatedly in the practice of law that I always wanted to have at my mental fingertips, looking up was just to make sure. Braille was how I kept notes for years, using the slate and stylus and Perkins Braillers, and even after not having to do that exclusively, I still used Braille heavily. It was necessary for taking notes in court and for setting down arguments I took with me to court, and Braille, after all, was how I learned to read and spell. Reading by ear was not so common when I was growing up as it has become. The huge decline of Braille use is something I regret.
Independence is something I always have treasured: the ability to come and go (I use a white cane), to do things around the house or office, to perform as many tasks as possible that my sighted counterparts perform. The more things one can do with facility, despite some sort of ability challenge, the more likely a disability will be forgotten and that one will be regarded as just another competent contractor, teacher, staff member, home maker, salesman, stenographer, social worker, machine shop employee, vending stand operator, lawyer, etc.; and the less
likely one will be thought of as an amazing exception, as some sort of miracle or miracle worker. Independence helps maintain resolve, high levels of concentration, strong/tough mindedness.
High quality support is crucial to any lawyer. Whether it is law clerks, paralegals, or secretaries, one’s own efforts are enhanced by quality support. In the case of being a blind lawyer, it is critical to have people whose attention to detail is above average, for the reality is that being unable to see eliminates one opportunity for catching mistakes–a document mistake, a personal appearance problem, something that a client might see on the desk that shouldn’t be seen, and so forth. There is more to practicing law than just making oral arguments in court or written arguments in a brief.
Developing and cultivating good networks is indispensable. This is true, whether sighted or blind. It is an important part of how one is regarded, as well. I always wanted to be able to constructively draw from and contribute to any network with which I was associated–a judicial committee, a research group, a legal writing group, an organization of entity directors. I did not want to be thought of as unduly reliant because of my blindness. This is another aspect of what I mentioned above, of being a member of a group without drawing extra special notice to a so-called disability. None of this has anything to do with trying to pretend not to be blind, I never have tried to hide my disability, but it concerned fitting into any facet of work or non-work as seamlessly as possible, fitting in without drawing attention to oneself unnecessarily. I never have regarded myself as a model for how to live blind, yet a person with a disability is inescapably an exhibit, a model of how to operate with that disability, like it or not.
In the very first essay of the New York Times series on disabilities, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson makes this important point:
A person without a disability may recognize someone using a wheelchair, a guide dog or a prosthetic limb, or someone with Down syndrome, but most don’t conceptualize these people as having a shared social identity and a political status. ‘They’ merely seem to be people to whom something unfortunate has happened, for whom something has gone terribly wrong. The one thing most people do know about being disabled is that they don’t want to be that.”
Yet, disability is everywhere once you start noticing it. A simple awareness of who we are sharing our public spaces with can be revelatory. Wheelchair users or people with walkers, hearing aids, canes, service animals, prosthetic limbs or breathing devices may seem to appear out of nowhere, when they were in fact there all the time.
The more we with disabilities can model the point that we are able to participate fully in society, including the workaday world, the more likely it will be that able bodied people will be comfortable in associating with someone who has a disability and the less likely it will be that disabilities will be regarded with fear and apprehension.