As I recently shared with presidents of bar associations across the mid-Atlantic, my disability is not a hindrance but a multi-layered status that has shaped my career for the better, if not always in a straightforward way.
During the invitation-only conference, I worked Bowie as the sole guide dog that I could determine at the hotel as well as during the sessions and the private networking dinners. I enjoyed the chance to reflect on disrupting established understandings at the conference.
Therefore, I will reflect on two remarkable anniversaries: the 300th anniversary of Grand Master and Ambassador Benjamin Franklin moving to Philadelphia as a young man, as well as the enactment of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and how each of these are forms of disruptive history for the betterment of this republic.
I correlate these two anniversaries as disruptive in their nature to the American experiment. The life of Franklin probably could have been different, as the son of a large, but at best middling family, had it not been for the newspaper. To his great fortune, Franklin’s brother owned one of the earliest newspapers in the colonies and took young Ben on as his apprentice.
To my great fortune, I enjoyed strong parents who advocated for my individual education plans as a lad, a wonderful orientation and mobility instructor, who pushed me perhaps as strenuously as I now do my law students, and a remarkable change in how we access information. Therefore, my life would be different but for the spirit of inclusion landmark laws foster, such as the Rehabilitation Act, and the technology advances related to disability inclusion.
I reflect upon another disruptive development: the iPhone and its mobile applications. Technology has profoundly opened doors by legal professionals with disabilities. If I were ever to be MSBA president or to be a high-level appointed official with influence, I would request all of us to ensure that science and technology be applied for broadening the circle of opportunity, such as adaptive technologies like Job Access for Windows has done for millions of people with visible or invisible disabilities.
In addition, I provide a couple of major policy developments of which you ought to be aware.
- A proposed rule has been issued in the Federal Register by the Biden administration related to ensuring the accessibility of websites and mobile applications by state and local governments under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. I applaud the president for this leadership with this proposed rule that will recognize websites and mobile applications of state or local governments as required to be accessible based on specifically provided technical standards. However, I am equally concerned that one could argue this is not as far reaching as it could be, as any regulatory action should also encompass websites and mobile applications as to places of public accommodations. In addition, the proposed rule seems to have questionable implementation grace periods equaling “two or three years,” depending on the state and its resources.
- The U.S. Office of Disability Employment Policy at the U.S. Department of Labor increasingly leads the space of inclusion in technology through its grants-based initiative.One of these is called PEAT, which has provided leadership and technical assistance throughout the federal government, including at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, on artificial intelligence and software or systems related to hiring.
I use a software called JAWS. This software verbalizes what a sighted person “sees” into auditory speech for me as a blind person. Nowadays, JAWS is ostensibly one of three main text-to-speech or screen-reader software programs.
Another one called Voiceover, an Apple product, can be accessed by anyone who owns an iPad or an iPhone. Today, my relationship with technology remains complicated with my assistant reminding me to be patient whenever JAWS does not want to work for me.
Understanding is best learned through common experience. So, I encourage you to look into the accessibility setting at your iPhone and try Voiceover.
I am deeply opposed to instituting mandatory continuing legal education in Maryland as a lawyer also licensed in a different state, where I must report my CLE credits. I recognize that mandatory CLEs will soon be our burden due to a range of economic and political reasons. When these CLEs are implemented as a requirement, there should be mandatory CLE credits related to accessibility, inclusion, and usability across social factors within the legal profession and related to adaptive technology, fostering that those without disabilities know better the barriers our profession imposes.
I conclude with the purported words expressed by Franklin, that we have a republic if we can keep it. To sustain our republic, we need more lawyers with disabilities who have influential voices on the public stage. You may hear their screen-reader in the background multi-tasking while others join a Zoom meeting.
Gary C. Norman, Esq., LL.M., is a past chair of the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights. He can be reached at (410) 241-6745.