EFE Featured on Chicago Daily Law Bulletin: Blind lawyer fights for rights of people facing disabilities
November 7, 2016
By Emily Donovan
Law Bulletin staff writer
Recently, Andrew R. Webb called a client to ask her to describe something she had sent him. It was a diagram of the medical equipment he was helping her apply for. “She said, ‘I don’t know why you’re asking this; I sent you the picture of it,’” Webb said. Most of the clients he works with communicate over the phone and have no idea. “I said, ‘I’ll let you in on a little secret: I’m actually blind,’” Webb said. There was dead silence on the other end of the phone. “I think for a second she thought I was joking,” Webb said. “After she got over the initial shock, she was actually quite impressed.”
Webb, an Equal Justice Works fellow at Equip for Equality sponsored by McDermott Will & Emery LLP, provides educational materials and legal representation to Illinois residents with disabilities. He helps them access health care and services and appeals insurance providers’ denials when necessary.
Given the right training, tools and opportunity, Webb said blind people like him work as competently as any other attorneys. That’s the whole idea behind his work. He said people with disabilities who don’t get the medical care and training they need are at risk of losing their independence.
“Knowing for myself the importance of quality training and services and technology, that’s an opportunity I want to help extend to other people with disabilities across the state,” Webb said.
Webb was sighted for the first three decades of his life. He got his J.D., litigated defense insurance at a big firm in Chicago and moved to San Francisco to work at a boutique firm there.
He has a connective-tissue disorder that makes him hearing impaired and makes his eyes susceptible to catastrophic injury. He wears protective glasses but lost sight in one eye as a child. In 2007, when he was 32, he wasn’t wearing his glasses and someone bumped him in the other eye with their elbow.
Despite three years of “many, many” surgeries to try to preserve his vision, the injury left him completely blind by his mid-30s.
“Didn’t work out, but I can at least say I learned enough ophthalmology in the process to carry a cocktail party conversation,” Webb laughed.
Webb said he always objectively knew losing his sight was a possibility, but that he avoided thinking about it as much as possible.
“The reality of that settling in took some getting used to,” he said.
Webb met with the California Department of Rehabilitation and set his goal of getting back to a law career. After attending a blindness rehabilitation training program in Minnesota, Webb moved back to Chicago in 2011 with his wife and kids, later starting his master of laws in child and family law at Loyola University Chicago Law School. He volunteered at Equip for Equality to redevelop his legal skills and get more exposure to special education and civil rights issues for people with disabilities.
Despite 2015 being the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, those with disabilities still have a high unemployment rate. Equip for Equality Vice President of the Civil Rights Team Barry C. Taylor said law school administrators found students with disabilities equally competent as other students but had a harder time getting jobs. Furthermore, Taylor said the law school administrators said while some employers had started recruiting women, people of color and members of the LGBT community, but people with disabilities had not been incorporated into diversity plans.
An organization called the ADA 25 Advancing Leadership formed to create a pipeline of civic leaders with disabilities in Chicago. Taylor said they wanted to create a legacy project, something that would at least symbolically address the high unemployment rate for people with disabilities, so they created a fellowship with Equal Justice Works.
Tammy Sun, Equal Justice Works senior manager of fellowships, said she was impressed by Webb and his idea to provide legal aid to people with disabilities seeking medical services.
“He just blew us away,” said Tammy Sun, Equal Justice Works senior manager of fellowships.
Webb said people’s impressions of him and of how capable blind people are can depend on him presenting himself with confidence and competence when he walks into a room.
“I find that if I come across as well-prepared in a discussion with other practitioners, that soon enough other people tend to forget or not focus on the blindness,” he said.
For Equal Justice Works fellowships, recently graduated attorney applicants pitch an idea of how they can serve an unmet legal need in the community and what public-interest legal organization they would work with. Equal Justice Works finds an organization to sponsor the fellow for two years.
Elizabeth P. Lewis, a partner at McDermott Will & Emery, which is funding Webb’s fellowship, said it’s unique and invaluable for a person with disabilities seeking legal help to get it from another person with disabilities.
Plus, people with disabilities are another aspect of diversity efforts that Lewis said fosters new ideas and a happy workplace. In fact, Lewis said McDermott’s diversity group has a subcommittee for people with disabilities.
“We view ourselves as a law firm in a unique position to bring about change in a lot of different ways, both as lawyers and also as corporate citizens and members of the communities,” Lewis said.
Webb said most people in the general public know of so few blind people that he sometimes has to teach people how capable a blind person can be. He said he enjoys that role.
“Most people’s interactions with blind people is so limited that anything I do in front of people who are meeting a blind person for the first time I think tends to have a powerful impact one way or another,” he said.
Webb said the few blind attorneys he met when he first lost his sight congratulated him on picking an excellent time in history to go blind.
Webb has a screen-reading computer program that verbalizes any text directly into his hearing aids. If he’s given a physical document, he can scan it with his iPhone to send it through the program. Ironically, he said, he now reads faster with text-to-speech software than before. He sets the computer voice on such a fast setting that people he plays it for can barely comprehend it.
“Usually, people ask what language I’m listening to,” he said.
Webb said it can be difficult to keep up in live time if he’s reviewing documents with opposing counsel, since he has to listen to the voices of other people while simultaneously listening to the computer voice, but it all comes with practice.
He said one of the biggest challenges of some work days is getting to the office in the first place. Each morning, Webb and his guide dog Lance take a Metra train from Glenview, then board a bus near Union Station to get to the Equip for Equality office at 20 N. Michigan Ave.
“It almost feels like running 10 miles to get to the start of a marathon at times,” he said.
Lance, whose wagging tail might whack filing cabinets, is a friendly black Labrador retriever. He takes a morning nap on the dog bed in Webb’s office as Webb starts work.
Last updated: November 11, 2016