Dee Jones, JD 2012
People with disabilities have traditionally been told, ‘Stay home, don’t go out there.’ These lawyers who are teaching me are saying, ‘You can do it.’”
BA from Vermont College
Career Before Law School:
entrepreneur who started and ran several small businesses, including a retail record store, mobile DJ business, and held the Vermont State House food service contract for two years
Advocacy and determination appear to come naturally to second-year JD student Dee Jones, who speaks easily about the remarkable challenges she faces as a law student whose last visual acuity test measured her eyesight at 20/1200. "They call it ‘finger-vision,'" she says. "I can count fingers at two feet in my left eye and two and a half feet in my right eye."
Legally blind since the age of five, she has had to adapt to the limitations brought on by degenerative vision that has spanned several decades. As reading became progressively more difficult, she learned Braille. When she lost her night vision, she learned to walk after dark using a cane. When she needed to adapt her computer for her sight loss, she turned to a specialized screen-reader program.
Last year, Dee faced another challenge when she learned that the State of Vermont had major changes in store for the Division for the Blind and Visually Impaired (DBVI), a state agency she often turned to for help during the 21 years she has lived in Vermont.
The state planned to merge DBVI with the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, a move that Dee feared would mean a loss of important services that DBVI provides to help visually impaired people such as herself lead independent lives. It wasn't about budget cuts, she says, rather it was about a much larger issue: for a blind person, achieving independence involves much more than simply learning job skills.
"There are people who would never get out of their houses again if this happened. That separate agency protects that little bit of money that comes to Vermont that helps people live independently. It's not for employment reasons, it helps them with their lives," Dee said.
Dee says she lost sleep thinking of the people she knew whose lives would be upended, so she did what she knows best: she took up the challenge. Working with a lawyer who serves on the DBVI advisory council, Dee set out to identify statutes that would apply. She found two: one that drew a clear delineation between the two separate agencies, and a second that required that the legislature be given 90 days to consider such a change-slowing what she says had been a fast-track effort by the state to make the merger happen.
She also helped organize the letter-writing campaigns, rallies, and phone calls to the governor's office. Dee, who knows the governor from her days running the State House food service, also penned a personal appeal. "We called it ‘spaghetti on the wall.' We just threw everything at it; we tried every different avenue," she says of the effort. The spaghetti stuck. The merger plan, which the state first announced in late September, was ditched by December.
In the classroom, Dee is not able to see what is written on the whiteboards or view a PowerPoint presentation. Her textbooks are electronically reformatted to speech files that she reviews before and after each class. She also reviews tapes of each lecture, often more than once, to pick up what she may have missed on the first take. She is assigned a mentor who has already been through the class to help her navigate the coursework, while a fellow classmate is designated to take notes that will supplement her efforts.
"The Socratic method can be very challenging. Professors are looking for specifics out of cases. Most law students are sitting there flipping through the pages, but I don't have it at my fingertips. I just have to know the information when I go to class-the cases, the standard of review, the holding. That's very challenging," she says.
Fellow students and professors often don't realize that she is unable to recognize faces. "I am going to school with a bunch of people and I have no idea who they are. Some I have grown to know by their voice, but it's a bizarre experience to be walking through the world and not know who you are talking to."
Now with three semesters behind her, Dee credits VLS with providing the support and accommodation that have helped her navigate law school, from the large screen computer designated for her in the library to the adaptive software that converts a textbook to an electronic format.
One Civil Procedure textbook has created specific challenges due to colors in text boxes that don't scan properly. "We've probably tried 10 different scanners in five different formats," she says, crediting three people in particular-Katrina Munyon, program coordinator with Academic Success; Colleen Hurd, a technician with Information Technology; and Clara Gimenez, assistant dean of Academic Affairs-for their efforts in working together to meet her needs.
"It's very complicated to put someone with this disability through a law degree. There are issues every day," Dee says. "They have done some very advanced work on my technical issues. I could not do this without all of the people and all of the help. The accommodations are not easy; they are a huge commitment."
But those who have worked with her say the learning has been mutual. "She's been phenomenal to work with. It's been a learning experience for me," says Katrina, who has worked with both publishers and professors to ensure that even the smallest details are addressed. "Sometimes you just have a whole new respect for being able to see on a daily basis. To go through law school with this disability is amazing, and she's been very successful."
Through a national listserve, Dee emails with several other blind law students who swap stories about their challenges. She believes the small nature of the VLS community has afforded her more in the way of support and services than her colleagues at larger law schools. While there have been a few bumps in the process, she says her professors have also played a critical role in supporting her work.
"The professors are really interested in being helpful. They see no problem with my being successful as a lawyer and that's huge; that's a societal change. People with disabilities have traditionally been told, ‘Stay home, don't go out there," she says, relating how her brother pursued a teaching license despite being told that a visually blind person couldn't teach. "These lawyers who are teaching me are saying, ‘You can do it.'"
Describing her gregarious character, Dee adds, "My mom used to say, ‘That mouth of yours is going to carry you far, or it's going to get you in a lot of trouble.'" Dean Gimenez credits Dee with being her own best advocate, and says her tendency to be outspoken and involved in her own accommodation plans, combined with her keen sense of humor, have served her well.
"She is so willing to engage in the dialogue and so willing to understand that we are learning here too, that it's a two-way street," says Dean Gimenez. "The most fascinating piece of this is that even with her disability, Dee can be an excellent lawyer. Some of the insecurity of not being able to see really turns into a skill. She can manage concepts and go beyond survival. You shouldn't be trained to survive. That is the wrong mechanism. Dee can be the best lawyer."