Feature: Unlocking ability beyond disability

  Fom dictaphones and faxes to BlackBerrys and memory sticks, from overhead projectors to PowerPoint presentations, from conference calls to web teleconferencing; in the last 10 years lawyers have ridden a wave of technology that has seen them emerge from piles of files, morphing into travel-light, constantly contactable service providers with paperless or virtual offices. Generally, the changes have been dramatic, but the changes for lawyers with disabilities have been career- and even life-altering.


One of the most dramatic stories of how technology enabled one man’s life in the law to continue as his disability gradually worsened is that of late Ontario Superior Court justice Sam Filer. Filer suffered from ALS for 20 years. He lost his speech within 18 months of his diagnosis, and his strength and mobility gradually decreased until his death in 2006. His widow, human rights advocate Toni Silberman, recalls that as his illness progressed so did the technology he used, with the help of the Assisted Technology Clinic at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto.

“When Sam’s fingers still had some mobility, he used a device like a label-maker that punched out words and letters like a tickertape,” says Silberman. “Then he used something that looked like a laptop, which had a number of devices affiliated with it. He made the most use of a device that was activated by Morse code. As he did the dots and dashes, it would move to the letters that they translated to on an overlay where the screen would normally be. It had the capacity to speak and had a printout like an adding machine tape.”

Later, Filer graduated to a regular laptop that had a scanning capability. He would activate it when he got to a row and then to the letter. The program had a predictive capacity, so after Filer activated a few letters, it would fill in the word. “The key to any technology is the activation device,” says Silberman. “Sam used a myoelectric switch, which is sensitive to muscle movement. It was originally taped in his palm because he had very strong movement in his baby finger. As his muscles weakened, it followed his muscle groups, from his cheek to his forehead, where he had a strong muscle that reacted to moving his eyebrow up and down. It was an 18-year progression until he retired in January 2004.”

The court administration accommodated Filer’s continued career by allocating him exclusively ex parte motions that didn’t require the presence of counsel. “Technology was a lifesaver,” says Silberman. “It enabled him to keep working in a profession he adored and to contribute to the administration of justice. Had he been self-employed or in another line of work, he probably couldn’t have continued. He was the supreme communicator and it was so frustrating to lose that, but when you find another way to carry on, that’s cause for celebration.”

Filer’s determination is being echoed in the use of technology by many other lawyers with disabilities. If he was still working, Filer would surely be pleased to see Martin Anderson, of the immigration law section of the Justice Department, driving into court on his scooter, or Jason Mitschele, a federal Crown counsel, who uses technology to overcome his blindness. He would applaud the use by Anderson’s colleague Margherita Braccio of a braille laptop, or be pleased to see Robert Fenton, counsel for the Calgary Police Service’s police chief reading documents on his pocket-sized daisy player.

“In court it is very much BYO technology,” says Mitschele, who since 2003 has been practising despite being blind. “The only assistance provided by the court is that the court reporters often e-mail transcripts instead of giving me hard copies. It saves me a couple of steps.”

Back in their offices, these busy lawyers employ even more technology that can be adapted to their special needs. All the lawyers interviewed who have a visual or speech impairment use voice-to-text or text-to-voice software, along with optical character recognition scanners. The most popular programs are JAWS or J-Say. “I’m not a techie guy. I use it because I need it,” says Mitschele. With JAWS, he reads e-mail and pulls up cases on the internet. With the accompanying scanner, he scans text to speech. “I wouldn’t be able to do the job, as I do, without it.”

Fenton, who is also visually impaired, is a frequent user of J-Say. “J-Say provides feedback on what you just did,” he explains. “You speak into a microphone and use headphones to hear it played back. The newest version of J-Say has more macro capability, so you only have to type in a name or address once, then you just say the file name to pull it up. If you have 150 or so files, it’s much better not to have to remember file numbers and phone numbers.” Fenton also uses a braille printer for preparing examinations and cross-examinations.

Anderson, whose cerebral palsy affects his hand-eye co-ordination, walking, and speech, has customized regular software to meet his needs. He is unable to use speech-recognition software for a number of reasons.


“Number one, it is harder to talk than type; and, number two, how I say words changes from morning to afternoon, or even day to day.” Instead, he uses a version of MS Word autocorrect containing several thousand shortened versions of words. He only has to type a few letters and a whole word appears. “Ten years ago, when I would have had to write or type out everything, it would have been be extremely difficult. The computer is a great equalizer.”

The degree of severity of an impairment can also allow for innovation in the workplace. Arvin Gupta, currently articling at Mazin Rooz Mazin in Toronto, has limited vision, for which he uses an electronic magnifier similar to a portable, miniature television camera that creates an enlarged image. “It’s not fast enough to use in court or when people are waiting. I can’t check documents on the fly.” He is still in the process of figuring out what will work best for him. “I may consider implementing a braille printer, primarily for organizational purposes.” He finds out about new technology through word of mouth.

Braccio believes being a disabled lawyer is possible even without technology but says working with technology is much more resource-efficient. She laments that the technology is so expensive. “It depends on your employer and the individual if you can afford it.” Gupta’s employers take what he calls “the black box approach.” “I tell them what I use, they make whatever provision they can, then they expect me to do the work.”

The constant improvements in software have been a boon to lawyers with disabilities. The first version of JAWS did not provide much help with the internet, and the original DOS-based version of Quicklaw was also limiting. “Now that Quicklaw is internet based, it’s a such a blessing,” says Fenton. “If you are running the same queries regularly, the results will be e-mailed without cost. In the old days, you’d have to do it manually and it would cost money all the time.” Electronic discovery systems are also assisting by getting more and more documents into electronic form.

Despite the progress, there are still limitations to be overcome. Some software applications are not compatible with certain speech programs. For instance, with Adobe Acrobat only certain kinds of non-secure items are readable. Older courthouses, as well, still pose challenges for wheelchair users, and the lack of wireless access in them limits the use of laptops for legal research on site. This means that in the world of disabled lawyers there is still a role for “human technology.”

“I still need a sighted person to look over a letter to make sure it’s presentable, or to highlight a case book, or to help with filing when I have hard copies,” says Fenton.  Mitschele has a full-time assistant in court and in the office, but on the day of our interview his assistant had gone home sick. “There’s still heaps I can do,” he says. “Twenty years ago, using a Smith Corona, it would have been so much more challenging, especially for citing cases and inserting quotes, which I now do with a simple cut and paste. We’ve come a long way.”

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