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?

Reflecting on “In My Language”

I’m reading Dr. Temple Grandin’s “The Way I See It: A Personal Look at Autism and Asperger’s,” in which she mentions Amanda Baggs’ Youtube video sharing her Autistic language very powerfully in “In My Language.”

Although I do not have Autism or Asperger’s, I immensely relate to what Amanda (Amelia) Baggs says in this video, in her language, because of my speech impediment. People who first meet me have difficulty understanding me. But it gets easier to understand me after a while. Unfortunately, a small number of people cannot understand me, even after communicating with me several times. Some friends consider my speech impediment like another language and take pride in being able to communicate with me.

Picture of Inside My Language video: "Only when the many shapes of personhood are recognized will justice and human rights be possible."

Picture of Inside My Language video: “Only when the many different shapes of personhood are recognized will justice and human rights be possible.”

I do feel the pressure to conform my speech to the “normal language,” as I have written about before with my communication device dilemma, and failure to conform leads to assumptions that I am less capable. Although there is a misconception that all people with disabilities have intellectual disabilities, I feel this is especially true of people with speech impediments. I am not trying to draw distinctions dividing people with physical disabilities vs. people with intellectual disabilities, which could lead to undesired consequences in of a disability hierarchy. Assumptions of lack of capacity bother me for individuals with intellectual disabilities and those with physical disabilities, as well as for people who do not speak English fluently.

The need to conform is not only relevant to speech. I attended a meeting in college where sorority girls, who were also personal care assistants in my dorm for students with disabilities needing personal care, tried convincing us to join sororities because joining one would be non-conforming to norms attached to people with disabilities. (In this case, the assumption that people with disabilities did not join the Greek system). I didn’t fall for this; my roommate and another student with a disability were. I didn’t have any urge to do so. Not the there is anything wrong with those who do; it just wasn’t for me.

But I agree with the sentiment that people with disabilities have to conform to be nonconformists regarding the low to no expectations placed on us. As a nonconformist by nature, I am not sure if I would have pursued higher education if I didn’t have a disability, since our society expects everyone to get at least a college education, which is diminishing in its value (a discussion for another post). The lack of expectations for me to go to college or get a job motivated me more to go to law school. My dedication to advance civil rights through the justice system helped too. I did struggle greatly with the job part, but I was fortunate enough to successfully complete my legal education. I realize that even education can be difficult for people with disabilities with unaccommodating administrations, lack of accessible classrooms, housing, personal care, and so on.

Have there been instances when you felt/feel like the act of conforming was taking a nonconformist stance? Please share your experiences in the comments below.

The Art of Communicating Gimpy Style

I have a speech impediment with my physical disability. It’s hard for most people to understand me at first, but once they get to know me, it gets easier. I usually have a personal care assistant around to translate for me. I’ve been opposed to using a communication device instead of my own speech to communicate because it’s faster for me to repeat myself as opposed to typing what I want to say into a communication device and having what I typed read aloud. I type with one finger.

Picture of Stephen Hawking with his communication device from this online article.

Although I’ve been against using a communication device, I haven’t been so headstrong about using my speech for legal advocacy. I developed strategies for trial and oral advocacy, which I have been developing since Moot Court and Trial Practice in law school. Here’s my oral advocacy strategy: I write out my opening statement and argument so that my laptop reads it in court, and if I need to do a rebuttal, I have my assistant translate. For trials, it’s the same concept. I write out my opening and my direct exam questions, then have an assistant translate my cross exam questions and closing. My law school friend, who was also my co-counsel, translated for me during our Trial Practice competition. We lost horribly. I used the same strategy for my administrative hearings after law school, when I represented myself against the California Regional Center for my disability services. I won more hearings than I have lost with this strategy.

I recently found out through hearsay that my speech impediment has to do with my rejections for employment at the organization I’ve been wanting to work at and where I’ve been interviewed for a few times. This is ironic since it is a disability rights organization with a full time sign language interpreter for employees. I have gotten the impression that I don’t have “the right disability” or am “too disabled” for disability rights organizations. Yes, these were attorneys interviewing me for attorney and advocate positions.

Well, I’ve been reflecting on this. I always figured that employers were not hiring me out of fear of having to hire an assistant for me, but I didn’t realize that it had more to do with my speech. I keep having flashbacks to junior high when the special education coordinator (I was in mainstream classes, but I had someone coordinate my educational accommodations and a teaching aide) told me that I had to use my laptop to give my science group presentation. Who tells a rebellious pre-teen what to do? In protest, I used my speech without a translator. Fortunately, my friends and I didn’t care about grades back then.

Christy Brown (1932-1981), an  Irish writer and painter who had cerebral palsy and was able to write or type only with the toes of one foot. His most recognised work is his autobiography; titled My Left Foot. This picture shows Christy tying with his foot from christybrown.info.

Christy Brown (1932-1981), an Irish writer and painter with cerebral palsy, who was able to write, type, and paint with the toes of one foot. His most recognized work is his autobiography, My Left Foot. This picture shows Christy typing with his foot from christybrown.info.

I do worry that clients will react similarly to the attorneys who have interviewed me, a concern in starting my practice. But when I volunteered for an advocacy office serving clients with developmental disabilities, my clients and their family members actually appreciated my speech impediment. Perhaps I need to find those clients, or as many advised, become an expert in a special field. But how?

Roger Ebert with his laptop at his Ted Talk, "Remaking My Voice"

Roger Ebert with his laptop at his Ted Talk, “Remaking My Voice”

Picture from Roger Ebert’s 2011 TED talk found online here.  After Ebert lost his lower jaw to cancer, he lost the ability to eat and speak. But he did not lose his voice.  Ebert with the assistance of his laptop, wife, and other friends, tell his story.

I feel like society wouldn’t pressure people in the deaf community to surgically get cochlear implants so they can hear as opposed to using sign language, which is deeply ingrained in their culture. But I feel like I’m stuck in my 7th grade science class again. Society, or at least the legal and professional community, is functionally telling me that I have to use a communication device. Should I? How can I know whether I will face the same reaction even if I do use a communication device?