The second interview for the IDIA Disability Access Programme (IDAP) Interview Series is with the distinguished Judge David S Tatel of the United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit, often referred to as the second most important court in the United States of America. Judge Tatel was nominated to the bench in 1994 by President Clinton, to a seat vacated by Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Judge Tatel graduated from the University of Chicago Law School in 1966. He has had a very diverse career trajectory, from teaching at the University of Michigan Law School and Stanford Law School, to going into private practice with the firms such as Sidley & Austin and Hogan and Hartson. He has also served as the Director of the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and as the Director of the Office for Civil Rights, U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare.
Judge Tatel has been blind since 1972 due to a degenerative eye disease called Retinitis Pigmentosa.
This interview was conducted by Rahul Bajaj and Anusha Reddy, members of the IDAP Team. We would like thank Sy Hoekstra for suggesting that we get in touch with Judge Tatel. To the best of our knowledge, this is also the first interview of Judge Tatel wherein he addresses questions related to his disability.
The interview was conducted over telephone. The audio recording of the interview can be accessed below. We highly recommend listening to the audio recording as text doesn’t carry the full flavour of Judge Tatel’s responses. The transcript of the interview is set out below. The interview has been edited for clarity.
1. Would you be so kind as to describe to us the precise nature of your visual impairment so that we can craft our questions about the coping strategies that you have adopted accordingly?
Yes, sure. At the present time, for all practical purposes, I’m blind. I don’t read at all. I use readers and technology. I use a cane. So, in effect, I have no sight. I was not blind at birth.
2. When you started serving on the DC Circuit in 1994, adaptive technology was in its infancy at that point in time. Over the last 22 years, assistive technology has really replaced human assistance as the principal means by which a blind person can compete in the world. In what way has adaptive technology altered your modus operandi?
There are, I’d say, three basic improvements since then. First of all, almost everything we have is now digital. We basically don’t need to use paper, which means that there is much more I can do with computers and iPhones. In other words, I can read on my own.
Number two, I type braille and I’ve been able to move from an older braille computer called ‘N Speak which had limited ability to a much more advanced computer device called Voice Note which is made by HumanWare. The advantage is that it has email and I can use it for reading documents as well as typing. And the third biggest improvement for me, and may be the most dramatic, is the new iPhone and the Voice Over technology, which allows me to read basically anything I want on the iPhone. I should mention there is a fourth, which is the HumanWare Victor Reader.
So, the three devices I use are the Voice Note, the iPhone, and Victor Reader and with those three things and with virtually everything being digital, I can do dramatically more on my own that I could 22 years ago.
3. In our engagement with employers in the legal profession, we have often noticed that, while most of them are well-intentioned, accessibility often gets sacrificed at the altar of efficiency. There is a widely held belief that a blind person, no matter how competent he/she may be, is likely to take longer to do things because of his/her reasonable accommodation needs. So our question to you is does your own experience bear this out, and how would you react to this concern that employers often voice?
Well, that’s a hard question, because the fact is that it does take longer. I mean, it takes me longer to do things than my sighted colleagues. I don’t have any doubt about that. I can read almost as fast but the note taking process, it does take longer. Now, that doesn’t mean I don’t work just as well or better but it does take longer. That said, there is a wide perception that blind people even with accommodation can’t do the work as quickly or as effectively as other people. I think my experience has been that once the institution the blind person is working in realizes that a blind lawyer is doing good work, that kind of disappears. It’s overcoming a sort of this initial [perception], I don’t think it is prejudice, but I think it’s lack of knowledge and not understanding what blind people with proper technology can actually accomplish. I think it is a sort of ignorance, in other words.
4. You had the rare distinction of working in both the private and the public sector before being appointed to the bench. In fact, you have had a very diverse career path (from working at Sidley Austin to serving as a director of the Office for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare to working at Hogan and Hartson and you even spent a year at Stanford Law School. To create an inclusive environment, it is necessary to sensitize employees at the workplace. Can you describe to us the methods adopted by your various workplaces to sensitize your colleagues so as to make the environment more inclusive?
You know there’s been nothing. I mean, my various employers – universities and law firms, they were all very open to ensuring that I had the technology I needed. There was no special training or programmes or anything. There just wasn’t anything like that.
5. There is a perception that certain kinds of workplaces are more accessible than others, so what special factors would you say should a lawyer with a disability take into consideration while choosing their employment?
Well, I think the major one is that you make sure you go to work for an institution, whether it is a law firm or government agency or a university, that has the resources to provide the technology that you need. This technology is not very expensive any more. That’s the nice thing about it. It is much more likely that a large law firm or a government agency will be able to easily purchase the equipment that you need. That said, my braille computer doesn’t really cost any more than an Apple computer. My iPhone does not cost anything extra. The only thing I would not do as a lawyer and maybe this is my own ignorance, [is a jury trial]. It would be hard for me to do a jury trial because you couldn’t see the faces of the jurors. Now, someone can tell you what they are saying and looking like. But I don’t think that is the same as seeing them yourself. So, just for myself, I wouldn’t do a jury trial but as I said, there may be blind lawyers who have figured out how to do it. I can’t think of any limitations at all. I think blind lawyers can do whatever they want.
6. It is really nice to hear that your workplaces were inclusive. In India, the problems that we face are a) there is no knowledge regarding assistive technology and b) organisations believe that it is an added financial burden to provide for reasonable accommodation. How do you think we can address these concerns?
Because of technology, the cost of hiring blind people is much smaller than what it used to be. I mean, I have a full time reader but the government pays for that. But the fact is that if I were thirty years younger and better on the computer, I wouldn’t need a reader. There is so much available digitally. Most blind lawyers do not use readers like I do.
7. You serve on a court where much of what you deal with is in the form of text, but there must be times when you would be required to deal with graphs, charts and other forms of visual information, while discharging your functions as a judge. How are you able to utilize that and meaningfully process the information?
I don’t; I use my law clerks for that and my reader. I operate in a very rare situation for a blind person. I have four law clerks, a reader and a secretary. Most people do not have that. So, I’m not a very typical lawyer because I’ve got these unusual resources here. But, I gather from talking to people that screen readers are perfectly capable of using tables and charts. You just have to know how to do it. But I just use my readers. You know, I’m not very good with technology. I operate with a disadvantage because I never learnt how to type, I use a braille key board which is much slower than a regular keyboard. If I could type, like most young blind lawyers who have no trouble typing, I would be much faster.
8. Do you typically write your opinions on a braille keyboard?
My law clerks do drafts and I edit them on the braille typewriter.
9. When we interviewed Justice Zak Yacoob who served on the South African Constitutional Court and happens to be blind, he told us that he was forced to go the self-employment route in the initial phase of his career because most employers refused to employ him under some or the other pretext. Even in India, it is a widely held belief in the legal circles that a blind person would be better off doing a desk job in a commercial law firm as opposed to practicing in courts. As a judge who has served in one of the highest pressure environments imaginable in the legal profession, how would you respond to this belief?
I think it is ridiculous. I mean, I don’t think lawyers should be expected to perform only in the office. Lawyers can argue cases just as effectively as anybody else. I told you the one limitation at least I have imposed on myself: I would have trouble during a jury trial. I’ve argued cases and I think it is not fair and it is not accurate to impose low expectations on what blind lawyers can do.
10. In an interview that you once gave to the NY Times, you said that you prefer being identified as a judge who happens to be blind as opposed to a blind judge. Would you, therefore, say that a lawyer with a disability should actively strive to de-emphasize the importance of his/her disability, in order to ensure that their disability does not become their defining characteristic?
I think once a lawyer performs well in the institution where he/she is, then the blindness will no longer identify the lawyer. I don’t think lawyers should say “Oh, I’m blind, hire me!” They should say, “I’m a really good lawyer who happens to be blind.” And “I can do the work just as well as anybody else if I have a braille computer and an iPhone.”
11. As someone who was sighted for a large part of your life, how important a role do you think the sense of sight plays in augmenting the abilities of a person. I ask this because in India, many people not only refuse to acknowledge the competency of a person with a disability but also have patronizing attitude towards the person. You have achieved heights that most lawyers would consider insurmountable. Do you still face that kind of resistance? How do you think we should go about dealing with that?
I agree. I experience it all the time. I just ignore it. In social events people don’t know who I am and they think I’m just a blind person and they don’t talk to me. I just ignore people like that. Once they find out that I’m a federal judge on the DC Circuit, they are very interested in me. You know what I hate the most, I’ll bet you have this all the time. When I’m with my wife, you know like at the airport, about half the people when they want to speak, they speak to her and not me. My wife always says, “Well, he talks! Talk to him”. People who work with me in my institution right now, who know me and know my work, they don’t do that. They don’t even remember that I’m blind. So, the best thing is, the only thing I can suggest is that institutions change in response to capable people and blind lawyers can change institutions by performing well and when they perform well the entire institution changes and the entire attitude of the institution changes. If you were to ask my colleagues whether one of their colleagues is blind, half of them will probably forget that I’m blind, they just don’t think about it anymore. So, that’s the only thing I know. But we all have to overcome that perception of sighted people that blind people cannot function as effectively as anybody else. I don’t think programmes will make any difference. I think that’s a waste of money. I think the best thing is to be sure that young blind lawyers have the resources they need to perform well. That will change public attitudes.
The IDAP interview series aims to solicit actionable insights from lawyers with disabilities on the strategies adopted by them to excel in their field. The series also seeks to educate and increase awareness within the legal fraternity, with the ultimate aim of fostering meaningful dialogue on reasonable accommodation for persons with disabilities. If you have any comments/feedback on our series or if you would like us to interview a lawyer, please reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can read our other interviews here.
Background track for the audio recording: Nicolai Heidlas, Cosmo World