Moving Mountains: Assistive Technology as a Means Towards Independence

It’s no big secret that I have been opposed to using communication devices pretty much my whole life—that is, until now. My cerebral palsy affects my speech and mobility, but not my spirit. Although it is difficult for many people to understand my speech, especially before getting to know me, I preferred repeating myself a few times over using a communication device because that was more efficient. There wasn’t a communication device that matched my comprehensive vocabulary and my slow typing speed made the process too slow.

When a friend told me about eye gaze technology, I was really excited. It was getting harder for me to type, so I was looking for alternative computer input methods. I tried a few devices and found the Tobii worked for me and it was covered, for the most part, by insurance.

The first time I got a Tobii was in 2013. Unfortunately, due to a mix up with my new wheelchair arriving after my Tobii warranty expired, I was never able to mount my Tobii on my new wheelchair, or any wheelchair for that matter. While the Tobii representative was gracious enough to let me borrow her table mount for an extended time, I could only practice talking to myself for so long. I did practice every morning for ten minutes at my home desk, where the table mount was set up and stayed, but then, I went about my day, which involved meeting people and attending events or appointments outside of my home.

The mount ordered with my first Tobii was a regular 7 shaped arm mount. I guess they didn’t get much consumer input (if any) designing or improving it, and that mounting technology had not advanced at all since the 80’a with my first communication device that I didn’t really use as a toddler. Due to my spasticity and lack of fine motor skills, I could never use these types of mounts myself. This might have contributed to my hatred of communication devices since I had to rely on others to move it, and take it on and off; being ‘confined to a wheelchair’ had a whole new meaning—since I couldn’t independently get out of my wheelchair when that mount was attached (NOTE: being ‘confined to a wheelchair’ is considered derogatory).

The second time I was evaluated for another Tobii-like device (I found another device, the Accent by Prentke Romich Company worked better for my spasticity, but got another Tobii because my insurance covered it), I expressed my frustration at the old mounting system that was still being used today to my occupational therapist. She told me of a mount she thought I could use independently. I was immediately intrigued and fell in love, even before seeing it in person. It was the Mount’n Mover, but what I heard was “Mountain Mover,” which I thought was a fitting name if I could really use it by myself.

Esther S Lee Mount'n Mover outside

Photo Caption:  Esther (me) using a Tobii mounted on a loaner Mount’n Mover in the backyard.

I fell deeper in love with the Mount’n Mover during a trial and am currently in the process of getting my own. In addition to being able to move the mounted device myself to transfer independently and/or access something else on a table, I can independently put my device and the mount on/off myself. This was something I never fathomed being able to do. I was able to take my communication device on the Mount’n Mover everywhere; to my doctor’s appointment, a writing group I participate in with local creative writers, and a meeting with Able Community’s supporters and a contractor renovating Able Community’s house. It’s amazing how much impact pieces of metal and plastic can have on one’s independence and empowerment.

I am an attorney, licensed to practice in Illinois and California. I recently opened a virtual law practice, called Disability Law Collective, (http://www.disabilitylawcollective.com). It is an affordable, socially conscious law practice advocating for people with disabilities and their families’ everyday legal needs.

I am also the president and founder of a 501(c)(3) non-profit housing cooperative for people with and without disabilities in the Chicagoland area, called Able Community, (http://www.ablecommunitychicago.org). It will be the only fully accessible and intentionally inclusive co-housing in the United States. Able Community’s mission is redefining independence through self-directed personal care, employment, and community by building affordable co-housing for people with and without disabilities to create an alternative to living in nursing homes and having to depend on family for care.

Esther S Lee Mount'n Mover house renovations

Photo Caption:  Esther (me) talking to a co-op mentor during the renovation of Able Community’s house with a Tobii mounted on a loaner Mount’n Mover.

Improving people with disabilities’ independence seems to be the common thread of my life’s work. I am often so engulfed in advocating for others’ independence that I neglect to think about improving my own. I am glad that I found the Mount’n Mover, so I can really start moving mountains, both for others as well as for myself. Now, I just have to work on the funding for it, since I just discovered that my insurance will not cover it.

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Happy Holidays!

The following is from my annual holiday update to my friends.

A blue postcard says "Happy Holidays" in the center with white snowflakes and stars. This image is from this link.

A blue postcard says “Happy Holidays” in the center with white snowflake stars. This image is from this e-card link.

I dreaded writing this year’s update. Although I was appointed as co-chair for the Women’s Bar Association of Illinois’ Attorneys with Disabilities Committee and a member of the Statewide Independent Living Council of Illinois (SILC), I haven’t been as productive as I would like to have been this year. I’m so used to doing everything at 90 mph that my slower pace is hard for me to get used to.

Another SILC member I just met worked at the University of Illinois when I was a freshman. When I asked her why we never met before this year, she replied that she saw me but she could never catch me because I was too fast. So perhaps there are benefits to living a slower pace. Please forgive me if I was going too fast to be there for you. I’m definitely here now if you need me.

Last December, I was just ending my pro bono work with the Legal Council for Health Justice, or the organization formerly known as Aids Legal Council of Chicago, which was a fantastic six months of hands on experience with Social Security matters directly from the Executive Director. I was enthusiastic to launch my own law practice, the Disability Law Collective, with the assistance from my legal incubator program. I soon realized that successful self-employment requires more than shared office space, particularly as a person with a disability. I did get my first case through Access Living and am eager to grow my practice.

I see improving independence and employment for myself and others with disabilities as the reoccurring theme of my work and my ultimate life goal. Able Community is the non-profit housing cooperative for people with and without disabilities that I have been working on with a fantastic group of people, who all happen to have disabilities and are all graduates from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Our Able Community members are working towards improving independence for people with disabilities, personal assistants, and their families.

Able Community is not having a fundraiser this year because we are working on our 501(c)3 incorporation; we are extremely close to filing the application. I realize that I’ve been saying this for a while, but we have just submitted our materials to our non-profit pro bono attorneys and our next step is filing the application. We will have more fundraisers once we file for our 501(c)3 status, so we can provide tax deductions. If you still want to donate to Able Community anyway, we would of course gratefully accept your generosity; here is a link to our PayPal info on the bottom of this hyperlinked page. We are incredibly grateful for everything our supporters have done for us already.

(In case you missed it, above is our fundraiser video from last year. It explains what Able Community is and who the members are better.)

I consider myself so blessed to be back home in Illinois, near the city I love and to be closer to the other Able Community members. As someone who pursued a legal career to practice civil rights and fight racial injustices, I am appalled by the recent police brutality incidents. I am conscious that the systematic violence and racial inequalities deeply rooted in our nation’s history call for even greater collective systematic change at the city and national level. I have also come to realize that the everyday injustices are just as important to advocate for as the systematic ones and I hope that my law practice, the Disability Law Collective, will meet the everyday legal needs of the disability community.

(A sneak preview of Disability Law Collective’s animated promotional video.)

I also feel blessed to be back, closer to my friends in Illinois, to celebrate life’s happy and sad moments together. I lost 3 friends this year. While this comes with being a part of the disability community and I have lost schoolmates from an early age, I don’t think I will ever get used to it. I’m sure that my losses do not remotely measure up to what the families who lost their loved ones with disabilities or the teachers and professionals who continuously loose people with disabilities they work with must go through.

Having said that, I believe it is wise to make legal preparations so your loved ones and family know what your final wishes are. This can be done through estate planning, including wills, and medical and financial powers of attorneys. I’d be happy to help you figure out what legal options meet your needs and if for some reason I cannot (I’m only licensed to practice law in Illinois and California), I’ll be happy to help find someone else who can. And please let me know if there is anything else I could help you with, legally or otherwise.

I have been enjoying Chicago. One of the Able Community members would marry football if he could, whereas I would definitely marry Chicago. My sister and I have been doing the touristy things that we never did before, like architecture tours. We’ve also been going to Broadway musicals. I’m really glad that my love of musical started in an early age (thanks to my elementary school music and art teachers). I did subject to my whole law school to this love by making many of the professors and students participate in my law school musical production during my last year.

I’ve also taken up some inherently dangerous adaptive activities, including water skiing and alpine skiing (I’m sure some of you would love to throw me off a mountain). It feeds my rebellious-defying-what-people-say-I-cannot-do-because-of-my-disability spirit. Similar to the teams of people assisting people with disabilities find independence through sports traditionally meant for able-bodied people, I am excited to be a part of teams advocating for the independence for people with disabilities through the Disability Law Collective and Able Community.

(Photo with the crew of volunteers who made sure that I didn’t kill myself my first time skiing.)

I am taking better care of my health with adaptive yoga and horseback riding. I look forward to adding adaptive scuba diving to the list of my inherently dangerous adaptive adventures. Perhaps I am training to be the next James Bond… I know that I am not an attractive British able-bodied man. But how cool would it be if there was a movie with a female spy with a disability who is a person of color?!?

Happy Holidays, but especially a very Merry Christmas and a Happy Hanukkah (showing my Judeo-Christian biases)!

Sincerely,
Esther S. Lee,
Attorney at Law
esther@disabilitylawcollective.com
Disability Law Collective <http://disabilitylawcollective.com>
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Back to Back Disability Conferences: NOSSCR & ADA

Dear Gimpy Law Readers:

I am attending two conferences to better serve the disability community. I just finished attending NOSSCR, a bi-annual conference on Social Security law, and am currently attending the National ADA Symposium. Interestingly, the definition of “disability” is harder to meet under Social Security than under the ADA.

NOSSCR/ADA Conference logos

NOSSCR/ADA Conference logos

I realize that I haven’t posted in a while. I faced setbacks to officially launching my law practice, Disability Law Collective. In particular, I was figuring out office accessibility at my incubator program. There seems to be a fine line when advocating for yourself in an employment-esque context. I also had to think about my clients and future attorneys with disabilities in my program.

Anyway, I will write an actual blog soon. If you want to see a blog on a particular topic, please comment below.

Attending the Access to Law Initiative Incubator Conference.

I’m attending the Access to Law Initiative Incubator Conference. I’d love to connect with you if you’re there!

ALI Incubator Conference

“The rapid growth of incubator and residency programs over the past 2 years is proof that good ideas spread fast. Law schools, Legal Aid programs and bar associations across the United States, and now the world, are assuming an increasing role in the development of post-graduate training and support programs for attorneys wishing to establish solo and small firms or not-for-profit organizations. Inherent in these programs is a focus on training lawyers who can help to resolve the unmet legal needs of individuals and entities from moderate to low-income communities while they build economically sustainable practices that will continue to serve those client needs.

These incubator and residency programs are expanding rapidly and reflect the fact that increasingly the people who choose to attend law school do so because they are committed to expanding access to affordable legal services for the mainstream groups that have not been adequately served, and because they recognize that solo and small firm practice has long been the most popular career path for lawyers.

This conference addresses the opportunities and challenges institutions face in the conceptualization, design and implementation of successful incubators and residency programs.”

Find more information about the ALI Incubator Conference at https://www.cwsl.edu/incubator.

Attorney Profile: Disclosing My Disability

After much deliberation about disclosing my disability on my online attorney profile, I decided to go full monty and disclose a full picture. Perhaps it makes sense for me to disclose my disability, since I am starting a disability law practice. But I am still nervous that some potential clients would be hesitant to hire me because of my disability.

When I was about to graduate law school, I had a conversation about disclosing my disability with my Employment Discrimination Law Professor. She encouraged me to disclose my disability, saying that employers would eventually find out that I have a disability and that I shouldn’t waste my time with the ones that discriminate. She added that I would find the right office that would accept me and my disability. After about six years of agonizing job applications, I have come to realize that no such office exists. But I am hopeful that my potential clients will be different.

Here’s my blurb for my up and coming website for my law practice:

Profile Picture of Esther Lee

Profile Picture of Esther Lee

My name is Esther S. Lee.  I am an attorney with a disability.  My Cerebral Palsy affects my speech and mobility, but not my spirit.  I received honors distinctions from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign with a B.A. in English and Rhetoric.  I graduated from the University of California Davis, School of Law, with a focus on civil rights and public interest law.  In addition to being an attorney, I am starting a non-profit housing cooperative for people with and without disabilities, called Able Community.  My extensive background advancing the rights of people with disabilities includes legal work at multiple disability rights organizations and disability policy work at the White House.  I am committed to empowering people with disabilities and underrepresented communities, advancing their rights and quality of life through legal advocacy.

Our office is an affordable, socially conscious law practice advocating for people with disabilities and their families’ every day legal needs.  The practice focuses on Social Security, Special Education, housing, disability, and administrative law; as well as advancing the Civil Rights of all people in Illinois and California.

Experience:

  • Successfully fought apartment management companies and university housing to modify units for increased ADA accessibility.
  • Successfully initiated Social Security applications and assisted with appearances.
  • Successfully resolved fence encroachment matters between neighbors.
  • Successfully reduced and appealed Cook County property tax assessments.
  • Successfully negotiated medical bills in a medical negligence case.
  • Successfully completed mediations, administrative reviews, administrative fair hearings, 4731 complaints for Regional Center disabilities services in California.
  • Successfully completed mediations and administrative review process for Department of Rehabilitation services.

Pro Bono Experience:

  • White House: Engaged in disability policy and outreach to the disability community.
  • Legal Assistance Foundation’s Special Education Pro Bono Panel: Trained to provide legal representation and advocacy in Special Education matters.
  • Access Living—Civil Rights Team (Chicago’s Independent Living Center): Advanced disability rights in housing and community integration litigation.
  • Disability Rights California’s Office of Clients’ Rights Advocates: Advocated for clients with developmental disabilities in Special Education, employment discrimination, and wrote a letter to stop harassing a client who was manipulated into purchasing an expensive household item he did not need.
  • Aids Legal Council of Chicago: Advocated for adults and children with disabilities in Social Security Disability Insurance and Social Security Income appeals before the Social Security Administration and Federal Court.
  • Legal Services of Northern California: Provided legal advice to low-income and elderly clients on topics including landlord-tenant issues, housing, and professional licensing.
  • Coordinated Advice and Referral Program for Legal Services (CARPLS): Assisted clients in creditor, housing, and family law self-help matters on a legal assistance hotline.
  • Civil Rights Clinic: Represented a former prisoner in a medical negligence (personal injury) case against prison personnel.
  • Homeless Action Center: Worked on Social Security applications and appeals for homeless and low income individuals.

Any feedback on this bio or thoughts on disclosing one’s disability on one’s profile?

Happy Fall, an e-mail update to my friends

Dear friends,

After 9 years of living in California, I moved back home to Illinois. I’m in an incubator program that incubates new attorneys into solo practitioners. Yes, my life has been full of detours, twisting and turning my intended direct path. When I was in Pasadena, I met up with my law school friend and mock trial competition co-counsel. As I shared my job search frustrations, she jokingly asked if I was upset that I haven’t changed the world yet. She was right. I remember writing in my law school applications that I’m not naive enough to think I can change the world, but I want to be a catalyst for everyday change. I’ve come to realize that I do want to change the world. Or at the very least, be part of that change.

This mass email will probably be my last update from this address. I plan to launch my law practice for people with disabilities and their families on January 2, 2015! I keep pushing back my launch date, so perhaps sharing my exciting news of my second wind at my legal career will motivate me to stick to this date.

In other fantastic news, Able Community, the soon-to-be nonprofit housing cooperative I’m starting with friends with and without disabilities filed its articles with the Illinois Secretary of State. We’ve been working on it for the past two years and are progressing towards our goal of becoming a 501(c)3. If I am able to leave a legacy, I believe it will be for my work on Able Community, redefining independence for people with disabilities, personal assistants, and their families by improving accessible housing and the dynamics of care to enable reaching our full personhood potential and employment. To find out more about Able Community, please visit: ablecommunitychicago.org.

Stay tuned for more exciting news to come!

This was an e-mail update to my friends. If you would like to receive e-mail updates from me, please leave me a comment below.

Picture of the "at" symbol emerging from an envelope with a blue arrow circling the envelope, representing an e-mail, from this link.

Picture of the “at” symbol emerging from an envelope with a blue arrow circling the envelope, representing an e-mail, from this link.

Yes, I am an attorney with a speech impediment working on a legal assistance hotline!

I am in the Justice Entrepreneurs Project (JEP), the Chicago Bar Foundation’s incubator program enabling new attorneys to start law practices, serving unmet legal needs. I am starting a law practice for people with disabilities and their families, as well as advancing the Civil Rights of all people. Before volunteering at CARPLS (a legal assistance hotline in Chicago) through JEP, my past supervising attorneys shielded me from client contact because of my speech impediment. At first, I was concerned, not with whether I could communicate with CARPLS clients effectively since I have a translator, but if clients would be reluctant to work with me because of my disability. Fortunately, out of my past 34 volunteer hours, I have only had one client who became irate at having to communicate with me, which was ironically after my conveying information that she did not want to hear. CARPLS has been very accommodating of my disability: finding ways that both my assistant and I can use headsets to communicate with clients and for me to enter information into their systems with my assistive technology. My acquaintances are astonished that I am volunteering for a legal assistance hotline.

Old fashioned phone with a figure standing by ready to help. Image from this site.

I appreciate my time volunteering at CARPLS, gaining more substantial client intake and direct service experience. Since I plan to integrate virtual law and online legal services in my practice, it is nice to get exposed to the cutting edge of legal service technology with CARPLS’ client intake and service management system. While we cannot solve every problem, it feels good to empower clients to write self-help letters and to be able to reassure clients that they have at least a few more days or until the end of the weekend before the sheriff comes to evict them. Volunteering for CARPLS has also been an unsuspecting source of mentors; I found seasoned solo practice attorneys in CARPLS staff and volunteers. I recommend volunteering at a legal assistance hotline to get exposed to various legal areas and communicating with clients, as well as connecting with other attorneys, for both attorneys with and without speech impediments.

Originally written for the CBA Record.