Working from a wheelchair, trial lawyer Carol Steinberg strained to hear the judge as she met in a sidebar with opposing counsel. She could not see the judge because of the elevated bench, and instead sat face-to-face with a wooden panel.
"As I stared at that wood in front of me, with the angry voice of my opponent and the obliging voice of the young judge above, I had one recurring thought: Maybe it's time to do something else," she recalled. "I felt I had no business trying a case in a wheelchair."
Steingberg recently chronicled her challenges as a disabled lawyer in an opinion piece for the New York Times. She has tried 50 cases, despite the obstacles from multiple sclerosis over the past 12 years. Like many disabled attorneys, it has been a battle of accommodation if not discrimination.
Accommodation v. Discrimination
For some lawyers with disabilities, it can be difficult to get to court and to present arguments before judges, according to Steinberg and Diana L. Lewis, who has sued her employer for disability discrimination.
Wheelchair-bound due to an accident, Wheeler said the Bronx District Attorney's office demanded her resignation after she joined a class action lawsuit over handicapped access to courthouses. Lewis said she could not get to the courthouse in the snow, so she asked for a transfer to a different office or to work on appeals from home.
"I don't think they wanted to accommodate me," Lewis said. "They just don't want anyone who is an added hassle."
The ABA Journal featured the plight of Lewis and Steinberg, reporting that many people responded to the New York Times op-ed. Stein said some disabled people commented that they were inspired to speak up about accommodations, but others were critical and even suggested she shouldn't be trying cases.
Technological and medical advances have made it easier for lawyers with disabilities to work. Smart devices can read digital documents to the blind and make transcripts on computer screens for the deaf. But people's perceptions have been slow to change.
"We're still often looked at as a delicate flower or damaged, and that makes it hard to be part of the diverse fabric of the workforce," said Stuart Pixley, who specialized in patent licensing transactions.
Pixley, suffering from cerebral palsy and used an electric wheelchair and hearing aids, formerly worked in three big law firms. But many disabled lawyers end up in government, advocacy organizations or small firms doing disability-related work.