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Insights into Accessible Technology for Blind Lawyers

I want to use my first post to write about something important and near and dear to my heart: the accessibility of technology in the law practice. Accessibility is crucial for lawyers doing research, writing memos and other correspondence, and carrying out the other facets of their day-to-day work. It is also important for the clients who wish to explore the website of their chosen law firm or view pertinent information their lawyer may share with them. As is the case in other professions, law is becoming an increasingly digital field. In many respects, this is helpful for those with disabilities – such as total or partial blindness — who are interested in becoming lawyers. Utilizing computers and electronic information puts them on a more even playing field with their sighted colleagues, and eliminates the dreaded stacks of handwritten documents. However, there are still many websites and software packages that are either inaccessible or hard to navigate with screenreading software.
I was born totally blind in 1994, and as far as innovations in technology are concerned, I feel like I couldn’t have been born at a better time. Even in my still-short life, I’ve gone from banging out my homework on a Braille typewriter to using a small, sleek notetaker with a Braille display and a laptop with a screenreader, both of which can render my assignments instantly readable in print. I went from only being able to perform the most basic functions on a cell phone to operating an iPhone with VoiceOver and using it for numerous purposes on the go. Most importantly, though, the increase in accessibility and the awareness of its importance has broadened my horizons career-wise. In law school, I use Lexis and Westlaw to do my research. My screenreader is able to let me know when cases are designated as good law – a green indicator for everyone else – or bad law – yellow or red – because the graphics are labeled. At my summer job, I utilized a free, open-source screenreader and a flatbed scanner in conjunction with an OCR program to read any paper documents or image-based PDF files I received, and I barely even had to use the scanner because so many things were electronic text files to begin with.
Still, accessibility is far from perfect. Many PDF files still consist of scanned images of text that are not readable without using an outside OCR program. Some websites are readable, but the lack of intuitiveness leads people using screenreaders to spend a few minutes investigating the layout of the page to figure out exactly what they’re dealing with. Additionally, many case management systems and most software packages for billing and time-keeping are not yet screenreader-friendly. As Matthias Niska pointed out in an article about accessibility in the digital profession, the keys to improving accessibility are awareness, education, and implementation. Lawyers and web and software developers alike should be made aware of the importance of accessibility and accompanying legal requirements. They should be educated on what does and does not work, and should work to make the products they create or use accessible to all people. It will be fascinating to see what comes out of this effort in the next few years, given the great strides that have already been made.

-Emily Pennington