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Lawyers with Hearing Loss Slowly Moving Into the Mainstream

Lawyers with Hearing Loss Slowly Moving Into the Mainstream

Editor: It seems to me I’m seeing more stories about people with hearing loss moving into occupations in which they were previously absent or extremely scarce. In the past month I’ve heard about advances in medical, police, and firefighting professions. The following story from the Northern Virginia Resource Center for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Persons (NVRC) discusses the increasing number of deaf lawyers. Thanks to NVRC for permission to share this story.

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There are fewer than 100 deaf attorneys nationwide, but 15 years ago there were fewer than 15 in the profession. Now there are three deaf judges in the U.S. The numbers are slowly growing, thanks to technological advances such as e-mail, text pagers, availability of interpreters and computer-assisted transcription services (CART) and workplace accommodations required under the Americans with Disabilities Act. But the fact remains that deaf lawyers are about as common as the albino buffalo. One reason is that deaf children don’t see the law as a plausible career. A legal career requires strong communication skills, operates with a unique vocabulary and demands complex interaction but perhaps the biggest disadvantage is an outright bias against deaf people by legal employers.

Judge Richard Brown of Wisconsin’s Second District Court of Appeals, who is deaf, says that legal employers have a belief that “deaf people can’t communicate and, therefore, can’t reason as well.” He himself faced a bias that he couldn’t ever be a trial judge. Using a CART system during a session as a trial judge, Judge Brown had an opportunity to show his detractors they were wrong. In fact, Judge Brown felt that the moment or two it took him to read the electronic translations gave him more time to formulate a thoughtful response to the courtroom’s action, and therefore, enhanced his ability to be a good trial judge.

A late-deafened lawyer in California, Kristin Wolf, says that she faced difficulty getting accommodations in college. The accommodations situation needs to be smoothed out before we encourage large numbers of deaf students to study law and attempt to enter the legal profession, recommends Ms. Wolf. Not all schools are impediments to obtaining a legal education. For example, Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon is known as deaf-friendly.

Judge Clark says the future of deaf children is at stake. He met one extremely perceptive deaf boy at an oral argument before the appellate court in Wisconsin. The boy told the judge he hoped to become a janitor some day. Years later, Judge Brown learned that the boy who planned to be a janitor became a medical doctor, rather than try to enter the legal profession.

*Copyright 2000 by Northern Virginia Resource Center for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Persons, 10363 Democracy Lane, Fairfax, VA 22030. Contact us: 703-352-9055 V, 703-352-9056 TTY, 703-352-9058 FAX, NVRCinfo@aol.com, www.NVRC.org. Please share this information but be sure to credit NVRC.*