GLEN GORDON: On FSCast 187, we’ll get to know Dan Clark, the man who’s been the voice of Freedom Scientific training for the last 20 years. And we’ll meet Laura Wolk. She just completed a year of clerking for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas with JAWS by her side. All upcoming on our podcast for August of 2020.
Hello, everybody. Glen Gordon, happy to be with you again this month. And if you’re one of those people who downloads our podcast early, and you’re listening before August 27th, why don’t you join us for FSOpenLine? Rachel Buchanan, Eric Damery, and I hold forth on Zoom for an hour or so, talking about essentially whatever’s on your mind – things you’d like to see in our products, problems you’re having, trends you’re seeing in technology. You bring it up, we’re happy to talk to you about it. For me, it’s one of the best things about my job. I love talking with all of you on FSOpenLine and hope you’ll join us live and in person this month, 3:00 p.m. Eastern on the 27th of August.
By the time you’re hearing this our August product updates are either out or will shortly be out for JAWS, ZoomText, and Fusion. These are always great to download because they have the greatest product fixes. But in this case they bring with it a new feature that we’ve not had in years past. You’re probably aware that every time a new update comes out, your product will let you know that it’s time to download and install it. But we’ve usually only done that within a major version. So if you’re running the JAWS 2020 versions, historically we would not tell you about JAWS 2021 being released.
But as of the August updates, if you have those installed when the 2021 products come out, which will be right around the end of October – they release just like clockwork – your software will let you know that the 2021 versions are out and give you the opportunity to download and install them. So it’s a great feature we’ve added, initially for English-speaking JAWS, ZoomText, and Fusion. You’ll get that feature and be prepared for the 2021 product releases if you install the August updates.
If you don’t want to wait until the end of October to have a peek under the curtain, we’ll be having public betas of JAWS, ZoomText, and Fusion. Those will release between the early and middle of September. This is a great opportunity for you to sort of kick the tires, test drive what the new features are. And at the same time, if you see some rough edges, let us know so we don’t embarrass ourselves with the official product release. Public betas really help us make sure that we’ve gotten everything right before the majority of people actually see the releases. Keep an eye out on our blog and website for announcements of exactly when the public betas are coming out and what you need to do to get them installed.
As always, it’s great hearing from you, and there are a couple of ways you can get in touch. Either send email to firstname.lastname@example.org, V I S P E R O dot com, or you can call our listener line, (727) 803-8000 extension 1010.
GLEN: Time now for this month’s Power Tip. And it once again comes from someone in Italy. Our Power Tip this month comes from Thabo Baseki.
JAWS VOICE: Want to make your reading with JAWS experience amazing, say words with speech and descriptive sounds, or you just want to teach JAWS how to pronounce a certain word? JAWS has the ability to do just that. I have that on my Windows machine. For instance, when my copy of JAWS encounters the word “picture,” it makes a sound of a camera. When it encounters the word “music,” it has a sound assigned to that as well, together with speech saying it.
The following steps will get you all set. One, move to the word you would like to create a rule for in the Dictionary Manager. Two, you can also change a group of words to be replaced, rather than just one word. For example, you might like to change “Florida Division of Blind Services” to just read “Florida DBS.” Start by selecting the group of words in your document. Three, now open the Dictionary Manager by pressing the JAWS key and the letter “d.” You will be placed on the dictionary of a currently opened app. Four, press ESCAPE, and you will be placed on the ADD button. Five, hit the SPACEBAR to activate the ADD button. Six, you will be placed on the edit field that will contain the word or group of words, if you had selected them; or you can just type the actual word in this field.
Seven, press TAB, and you will be placed on the edit field where you can type the new pronunciation you would like to hear in the future. Eight, TAB again. You will hear JAWS say “sound read only edit none.” Click or press ALT+DOWN to view suggestions. Nine, so if you would also like to add a sound, TAB again. You will then hear JAWS say, “select sound,” then activate it. Ten, you will be presented with 250 sounds that come packed into your JAWS product. Select your sound and tab to the okay button. Alternatively, you can import your sound here, as long as it is in WAV format. That should be okay.
Eleven, press TAB. You will land on the PLAY button, where you can test your selected sound. Twelve, if you are satisfied with the sound on the above step, you may wish to press TAB until you get to the OK button. You will have few options on your way such as language and case sensitive. If you are satisfied with all that, hit OK. Thirteen, close your Dictionary Manager. You will be asked if you want to save changes to your JDF file. Activate “yes” to confirm that. The next time you encounter that word, JAWS will behave as you have instructed it to.
GLEN: Thanks, Thabo, for that one. And for submitting your Power Tip you’ll get an extra year added on to your JAWS, Fusion, or ZoomText license. For those of you listening very closely, you may notice that Eric Damery had a hand in editing that because why else would someone in Italy say “You might want to pronounce the Department of Florida Blind Services ‘Florida DBS’”? But despite Eric’s editing, that’s a great tip.
GLEN: Joining me now is a man whose voice is more familiar than probably anybody who works for our company. And that’s because he’s the voice of all of our JAWS training materials, and has been for the last 20 years. I speak of none other than Dan Clark. And Dan, welcome to the podcast.
DAN CLARK: Thanks, Glen. Good to be with you.
GLEN: So I am ashamed to admit that, although we’ve known each other for a long time, I have no idea how you joined and how you entered the accessibility field.
DAN: I had been in the restaurant business for many, many years; and I got laid off, finally. And I decided that I wanted to get into computers. And I didn’t really know much about them, but this company decided to hire me, and they allowed me to learn on the job. Eventually I moved on to a different company as an assistant manager, and it was a company that you may have heard of – some people will have heard of them or will remember them – CompuAdd. They were out of Austin, Texas, and they were competitors to Dell at that time. CompuAdd opened up stores nationwide, and they opened up one in Baton Rouge. So I got a chance to go to work for them there as an assistant manager. And after about a year or so I got the offer to go to a different location as a manager. I could have gone to San Antonio, or I could have gone to Oklahoma, and I chose Oklahoma.
GLEN: Oh, so you were not born and raised in Oklahoma.
DAN: That’s correct. I was born and raised in Louisiana, even though I don’t sound like I have a Cajun accent or anything like that. My father was in the Air Force, so we traveled around. And I lived in Germany for three years, so we traveled a lot in Europe. And I learned German, of course. Even as a kid, I was looking at great works of art, going to different places and countries and seeing all kinds of fantastic stuff and learning new cultures and new people. So I think it was a really eye-opening experience.
But going back to Oklahoma, when I got there, an elderly guy came walking in one day with a stack of computer magazines and all that kind of stuff, the kind that if you’re a computer store manager, you kind of roll your eyes and say, oh, no, this guy’s got all kinds of notes. He knows what he’s talking about. And he was one of those kind of guys that came in and said, hey, what can you do to help me? I’m going blind, and I’d like to buy a computer. And I said, “Well, I don’t know much about that, if anything, really. But what I can do is try to help you and learn a little bit about it.”
Well, he mentioned something called Arkenstone. Now, Arkenstone, for those of you who don’t know, is the company that created OpenBook many years ago, the scanning and reading program. And he said, “Well, Arkenstone is sending some representatives to Tulsa,” which is where I was, “to do a demonstration of this program called OpenBook.” He said, “Why don’t you come to the demonstration? And if you’ll install that, and if it works on the computers that you sell, I’ll buy a computer from you.” I said, “Okay, well, that sounds cool.”
So I went to the demonstration, and I saw it, and I thought, this is amazing stuff. You know, I had not seen these scanning and reading programs before. And I really kind of fell in love with the technology. I thought it was really way cool. Now, back in those days you had to insert a scanner card into the computer slots, and you had to fool with dipswitches and pins and things like that to get the IRQs right to work. It wasn’t plug-and-play. But eventually I did get it working for him, and he did buy a computer from me.
GLEN: What turned it from being a one-off into becoming a dealer?
DAN: CompuAdd went bankrupt. When they went bankrupt, I started my own business. And the first thing I tried to do was I thought, well, I’ll just sell to the corporate groups that I had been selling to as a store manager for CompuAdd. What happened was that the corporate accounts that I had would buy things from me – and I only had, you know, a thousand dollars or so at the time to spend on inventory. It sometimes would take them 45 to 60 days to pay, even though they’re supposed to be net 15 or net 30. So what I did, after about three or four months, is I decided to basically only sell to people who were blind or visually impaired. And if anybody else called my business, I was giving them two or three other companies to go to.
My wife thought I was crazy at the time, but the way I looked at it was that the State of Oklahoma Division of Rehab Services or Department of Rehab, whatever they’re called now, they had a thing that said that they would pay on time, or they would pay penalties. So I was guaranteed to get a check within 30 days if I sold something to them. And that worked out really well for me over the years. And what happened is I actually ended up going and calling Henter-Joyce and saying, “Hey, can I sell JAWS?” And they said, “Sure. We don’t have anybody in Oklahoma. Let’s do it.”
And I called GW Micro at the time and said, “Can I sell Window-Eyes?” And they said, “No, we’ve got a dealer in Oklahoma already.” I said, well, fine. So I called Arkenstone, and I got signed up with them. And as a matter of fact, my wife Jill and I, she would help me in the business when I was out on the road by answering the phone and taking care of the paperwork. So my wife and I went to the actual first Arkenstone dealer meeting out in California.
And we met some great people there, people like Jim Fruchterman; and we actually met Ted Henter there for the first time because he was attending that dealer meeting, as well. And it just so happened that at the time that we were at that meeting, it was the same time that I was applying to Henter-Joyce to become a dealer for them. So it was great to get to meet Ted right there. And of course one thing led to another, and we became Henter-Joyce dealers.
GLEN: I remember that Arkenstone had this thing that they called the Arkenclone, which I think gave dealers flexibility to put anything into computers they wanted to. Am I right that you took that Arkenclone concept to the next level?
DAN: Yes, that’s one of the things that I did was I took the Arkenclone computer, which had at that time a 2400-baud modem, and I took out the 2400-baud modem and put a 9600-baud modem in it so it was no longer an Arkenclone. I bundled that with JAWS and also with OpenBook and a scanner. I would give the person a choice of either Word or WordPerfect. And I would also give them a DECtalk Express or a DECtalk, you know, hardware synthesizer because at that time those sort of things were not software synthesizers. It was all hardware.
And so the thing that I had seen right from the beginning when I started doing training for people who were blind or visually impaired was that I would go to someone’s house there in Oklahoma, and they would have a closetful of equipment, but they didn’t know how to use it. It was just sitting there. They had no training, or very little training.
So the SoonerSoft Reader is the computer solution that I sold very successfully to the Oklahoma Rehab folks. And what I would do is I would take out the whole kit, the whole computer and the scanner and all that stuff, and set it up for the person, for the client, and give them three hours of training, either in the morning or an afternoon. Then I would come back two weeks later and do another three-hour training session. So they got two different trainings, two weeks apart, which gave them a chance to start learning some of the stuff and get time to ask lots of questions. But the training part of it, and the fact that we used the Arkenclone computer at that time really made a difference, and that’s what really sent our business into the skyrocket mode, shall we say.
GLEN: Did you sell the business because you wanted a steady income and Henter-Joyce came available? Or how did that all come down?
DAN: Pretty much so, yeah. I was working seven days a week by the time the business really picked up. And I had come to that point where it was time to either go and get a storefront and start hiring people, or sell it. And I decided to go ahead and sell it and then go to work for Henter-Joyce because I had met Ted. We had worked with Eric and some of the other folks at the ACB conventions and NFB conventions before I sold my business and while I was still a dealer. So I got to know the folks, and I really liked working at the booth with them. And I thought, you know, it would be great to work there, as well.
GLEN: I remember you came to Henter-Joyce as a sales guy, originally; didn’t you?
DAN: Mm-hmm, yup. I did. And when I came to Henter-Joyce back in 1995, it was a small company. There was Ted Henter and Jim Watson were the two guys in the office that were blind. Of course you were remote at that time. But when we were taking orders, we were taking orders on three-part carbonless paper, which obviously is not accessible to Jim or to Ted or anybody else. And what we would do in those days, because we were a small company, we would often meet for breakfast or lunch or something. And at one breakfast Ted and Eric and I were sitting there. And I said, “Hey, guys. Why can’t we use JAWS, use it with a database, and put people’s names and addresses and the serial number for what they’re buying and notes and things like that into a database, and have access to it for everybody?” And Ted and Eric said, “Hey, that’s great. Do it.”
So what I did is I bought a program called ACT, Automated Contact Tracking, which later became GoldMine. And it worked pretty well with JAWS out of the box, but we did end up writing some scripts for it to help it perform even better. And I went back to Ted and Eric, and I said, “Now that we’ve got this database, can I hire some people? Can we start hiring people who are blind or visually impaired?” They said, “Yeah, let’s do it.” So what I would do is I would hire two people at a time. My theory was that I’m going to do the same amount of training; but if somebody doesn’t work out, I’ve got at least one other person left.
So after we had been working for a while, and I had hired, I don’t know, six or eight people, the thing about those six or eight people we hired who were all blind or visually impaired was that they were all on Social Security Disability income. Which meant that they could only work a few hours a week. And it became a nightmare, literally, trying to figure out the schedule because there’s limits on the number of hours they could work here or there.
And so what I did is at breakfast another time I went to Ted and Eric, and I said, “Hey, guys. Is there any way we can give these guys a competitive salary and get them off Social Security Disability income?” And they both said, “Yeah, let’s do it,” basically. It took us a few days to discuss it with the guys and gals, and they were a little bit apprehensive about it at first. But everybody eventually came on. And from that point going forward, we hired everybody full-time.
GLEN: Dan Clark, the trendsetter here. I had no idea that came as a result of your idea.
DAN: Yeah, yeah. It was fun.
GLEN: Our Power Tip a few minutes ago reminded me that back in the day you had some fun with the Dictionary Manager.
DAN: Well, it actually wasn’t me. It was Eric that had the fun. And here’s the scenario. Eric Damery and Ted were probably working on this new feature called the Dictionary Manager, and it got into a beta copy, and it ended up on Jim Watson’s computer. Well, Jim told me the story that one day he came to work, and he was reading his email, and he kept going nuts. He was like, what? The computer was reading his name as Bozo. So he was hearing, “Dear Bozo. How are you today?” And he was going, what is going on? So he would stop, and he would spell the word, J I M. He would go, prior word, Hello. Next word, Bozo. What?
So it was kind of interesting that we have a product with so many unique and powerful features. This one can literally change night into day. And it’s just another one of those examples that it’s kind of fun to be able to share with people how something like that happened.
GLEN: How did you move from being in sales to being in training?
DAN: We had a guy in the training – in the recording department. You remember Earl Harrison?
GLEN: Oh, yeah. Yes, I remember him well.
DAN: He had set up the recording studio. And I was in sales, and I wanted to get out of sales, and I wanted to go into training. And he was running the training department and stuff like that, or part of it. And so we basically made a swap. He went into sales, and I went into training.
GLEN: You tend to be the single person that people come to visit, either when they make special trips or they’re having a family vacation through Florida. Everybody wants to meet the voice of all the JAWS training materials.
DAN: It’s funny because even now I’m still talking to people. We have an intern that’s working for us now, and these people that are in school and college and just getting out in the job force, many of them grew up hearing my voice. And it’s just amazing to think about that. It’s just – somebody said the other day, “Hey, your voice sounds so familiar.” I said, “Yeah, probably because you heard it in the basic training.”
GLEN: Was it you who started out our webinars with, was it Talking Communities?
DAN: It’s one of those things that I did as a search to try and find a platform because back in those days there were other platforms that were not accessible. And it gave us, back in 2009, the first opportunity to present a live webinar. And the first one we did was on January 19, 2009. And it was JAWS and MAGic Reading Commands and Cursors Used by JAWS. We actually have a recording of it. And in that recording, the very first thing I said towards the beginning of the webinar was “Looking forward to history today, making our first official webcast.”
The thing about Talking Communities back in 2009 and doing these webinars, of course the majority of the people were in the United States, typically, but we had other large centers of population where people were tuning in from Canada, from Australia. But literally, we actually had people joining from A to Z, from Albania to Zimbabwe, which is just amazing.
GLEN: Well, yeah. Especially back then, too, because Internet access was less available.
GLEN: When did we start doing YouTube videos?
DAN: We had some videos out on YouTube a few years back, and we had kind of just posted some, and that was about it. I think we did some on the RUBY and a few of the other hardware devices. But the most recent one came about as a result of the changes in the training team. Once Rachel Buchanan came onboard and started giving us more direction, it freed me up to do some things like starting to do more videos. And so what we did is we started posting these short demonstrational tasks on YouTube, on the Freedom Scientific Training Channel, just a little over a year ago. And we have over a hundred videos there now.
GLEN: That’s pretty fast in terms of getting them up there. Now, is this content that’s duplicated elsewhere? Or is this unique to You Tube?
DAN: Some of it is duplicated elsewhere because what we did is we took those videos, and we created them as part of our webinars. So each month we were doing, for a while there, two webinars a month. And the team, Rachel and Liz and myself, would each do separate videos, and we’d combine them into the webinar. And then I would extract them basically and use them for YouTube, as well. But of course for YouTube you have to do some other stuff. You have to put the titles and the captioning and different things like that. So it takes a little longer.
GLEN: I am told by our crack research staff that your long-time best friend is an astronaut.
DAN: Yes, that is true.
GLEN: Were you able to go watch the launch?
DAN: As a matter of fact we were because, when I heard that he was going on his first flight, and we were in the process of moving to Florida at the time, I reached out to him immediately, and I said, “Dan, what can you do to get me to see the launch and to be there?” He came through with flying colors, literally. He gave us the VIP passes to join with the family and the friends that get to sit and watch the launch. We got to go a couple of days before and do the tour of the Space Center with the families. And they have a party, a get-together the night before.
Now, the astronauts themselves can’t do that because they’re in quarantine, but we are able to talk and chat with the families of everyone who is there. And I can tell you they were scared about it a little bit because it was one of the coldest launches since the Challenger had been destroyed some 10 years earlier. It was very, very cold, and it was a night launch. But I’ll never forget it. The power of that shuttle as it takes off just reverberates through your chest and your body. And all the birds in the swamp just took off because it woke them up, and they just started flying off. It was really amazing.
One of the things that I’ve always done, Glen, is I’ve always surrounded myself with the best of the best people that I could find, for friends and for employees, you know, for associates when I was hiring people. It just makes sense to hire the people that are going to make you look good. When I was in high school, my two best friends were valedictorian and – what’s the other word, salutatorian?
GLEN: I don’t know. I wasn’t one.
DAN: I wasn’t either. But Dan, who is my astronaut friend, and Leonard, who is my other friend, were those two guys. I guess you would have called me a nerd back then.
GLEN: Do you have any tips for hunting down those qualities that likely would cause someone to excel?
DAN: Well, I don’t know about tips for that. But I can tell people one thing is to be persistent, you know, be yourself and be persistent if you’re applying for a job. And I’ll give you a funny story about that one. Charlie Madsen was one of the people that I hired. And Charlie was calling me every day. He was like, “Dan, have you got anything for me? Dan, have you got anything for me?” Finally one day I answered the phone, and it was him. And I said, “Charlie, you can’t call me every day.” So he started calling me every other day. And I finally hired him. So my word of encouragement to people out there who are looking for jobs, or looking to enhance their education for future employment perhaps, is just to keep the course and keep steady. Keep the faith, if you will, and try to learn as much as you can.
GLEN: It seems that all good things come to an end, and you have told us that over the next few months you’re going to be phasing out working at Freedom Scientific and heading into – I guess it’s called the “world of retirement.”
DAN: Yeah. That would be the case. I’m looking forward to it, yeah.
GLEN: Have you given thought to what you’re going to do, how you’re going to spend your time?
DAN: Well, one of the things that I’ve done in the past few years is spent a lot of time teaching myself and learning as I’ve gone about video editing and audio editing, of course. And so I’ve got a subscription to Creative Suite, which I’m going to spend some time going through, first of all, Photoshop and the tutorials for that because I’ve never had the time to do it yet. And then the other one is that I used to teach the scripting classes, at least the first couple of them. And I haven’t had a chance to go back and study the scripting. And Ryan Jones and some of the guys over at TPG have added some new scripting materials. We also have web scripting that I haven’t really dabbled in very much. So that’s another one of my projects is I’m going to dive deep into scripting again.
GLEN: You are a nerd. You are a nerd after all.
DAN: Uh-huh, yeah.
GLEN: Well, Dan, I can’t believe, I went back and looked yesterday to see when you last appeared on FSCast. And although you’ve been on several times, I could not find any time when you actually talked about your experience and how you got working in the business, et cetera. So I’m glad we finally did it. Better late than never.
DAN: Thank you, Glen. And thanks to everybody at Freedom Scientific and Vispero. I can’t say anything more about the company other than what shows as a fact, and that’s the fact that I’ve been here now for 25 years, and three years prior to that as a dealer. This is just a great company and a great group of people, and I love what I do.
GLEN: With me now is Laura Wolk, who has the distinction of being the first blind woman to clerk for a Supreme Court justice. She just finished clerking for Justice Clarence Thomas. The audio quality on this interview isn’t what I would have hoped for. I had some gremlins in my audio equipment. I have since resolved them all, and I think the content of this interview makes up for any audio deficiencies. Laura, welcome to FSCast.
LAURA WOLK: Thanks so much. It’s great to be here.
GLEN: If someone looked at just the first part of your résumé, I don’t think they ever would have thought you’d become a lawyer. I mean, undergraduate degree in psychology from Swarthmore, and then a job as a social worker in Philadelphia. Were you even thinking about law at that point?
LAURA: I did not think about law at all, actually. And I had come to the decision that counseling is not what I’m supposed to be doing. And I actually went to a conference at Notre Dame, and the conference was all on bioethics, so it had this interesting overlap with disability. And at the conference there were people who addressed issues, bioethical issues from a number of points of view, but one of them was law. And it was so fascinating to me. So it was just sort of instant. Like I came back from the conference, I registered for the LSAT, and I just felt very committed and excited.
The thing that was funny to me is that I kind of felt a little nervous about calling my parents to tell them because I just went away for two weeks, and then I’m going to come back and say I’ve made this big plan, you know, career change, commitment, all these things. And I told them, and they were not surprised at all. And my mom, like, jokingly says, “You acted like a lawyer when you were a little kid. Like you were always arguing. You were always picking apart what people were saying. Like we were just waiting for you to realize that you were supposed to go back to law school. Like we all knew this was going to happen way before you did.” So I thought that was like oddly confirming to me that, if your whole family has this intuition that this is where you belong, like maybe you might belong there.
GLEN: I did my MBA because in part I knew that there wouldn’t be tons of reading. In psychology and especially in law school, I would expect that there was tons of reading for you to do. Is that an accurate...
LAURA: Very accurate.
GLEN: How did you find a way to make it through that material in a timely fashion, and also digest it at the same time?
LAURA: In large part it’s because I was a very proficient JAWS user by that time in the sense that, you know, my verbosity settings were quite high, and I could have the speed very fast, and I was used to hearing and digesting the information auditorily. I also did – I am a braille reader. I learned how to read braille when I was four. And I hope to never, ever have to do my job without braille. I don’t use it for reading just like the huge volumes of materials that I need. But for a close read, like if you’re switching from, okay, you have to read tons and tons of cases just to figure out what the world looks like and what the laws are and things like that, to really drilling down into these are the cases that matter, and what are the lines in every case that matter. That’s where for me braille, it does provide a different kind of processing for me where I tend to retain the words that I’m reading more, for a longer period of time, or more vividly in my brain.
So I do think the moral of the story is the more exposure to technology that a person has, and different forms of technology, the easier it is to find a process that allows you to do something like a large amount of material in a way that is comfortable for you or that matches with whether you are an auditory learner or more of a sort of embodied learner through braille.
GLEN: Did you know in law school that you had any interest in clerking for a justice?
LAURA: I knew very, very little about law before going to law school, as I sort of alluded to earlier. But many of my professors had clerked, both for Supreme Court justices and then also other judges that you would read opinions in your casebooks. So they would tell little funny stories in class about, you know, their funny, or like their experiences clerking. And my professors were extremely encouraging for me to at least explore it and maybe just talk to people or maybe just send in a few applications. And so I actually clerked for two other judges before the justice. And I loved, like I just loved my experiences so much. I jokingly, like I would clerk – I would just go around the country, like, clerking for everyone if I could because it’s just such a wonderful job. And it’s just such a unique experience. And you get to know the judges so well. But anyway, so it wasn’t...
GLEN: You’re leaving out the best part. Why is it such a great job?
LAURA: Because your job is to find the right answer. So a lot of lawyers, when you’re litigating, you have a client, and your job is to create the best argument for your client so that they have the best possible chance of winning. But your job as a judge is to find the right answer. And there’s just something that’s very attractive to me about that, that you spend all this time thinking and writing, and that your end goal is to produce a piece of writing that just explains the law. It doesn’t argue for a change in the law or a particular interpretation of the law or something like that.
And it actually does remind me, I think, of the things that I did in undergrad that made me feel the most fulfilled. So, you know, psychology is a soft science. There’s a lot of research involved. And so your job is to look at the data and give a neutral interpretation of what that means for what it means to be human or how you can solve the problem. And judging has a lot of similarities to that.
GLEN: So what was the process for applying for those original judgeships?
LAURA: It’s actually surprisingly simple. You basically just submit, you know, all of the materials you would think, like a transcript, letters of recommendation, and a legal writing sample. And you sort of send them out into the void and wonder if, you know, you’ll get a phone call one day. And you don’t even know if your application will ever be looked at because you’re not sure when the judge will decide, like, oh, I need to hire people, so I’m going to look at applications right now.
You might be working at a firm, and you sent in your application quite a while ago, and then you get a call and say, would you like to come interview? And depending on the opportunity and the judge, like people have established residences and lives and a place at a firm, and they’ll just leave for a year and go clerk because it’s something that is such an opportunity for young lawyers that, even if you already sort of have moved to a different work setting, many people still find it attractive enough that they would leave and go do it.
GLEN: So how did the Justice Thomas connection come about?
LAURA: Justice Thomas came to my law school when I was a 1L and taught a class which I was not able to take because it was, obviously, many people wanted to take it. And when you’re a first-year student, we were not able to do that. But he did come and give a talk to our constitutional law class. And I just found it so fascinating, and he is just such a warm and friendly person, even after working for him for a year I still have this experience where you just can’t believe he is a justice because he’s so humble and would much rather talk about you and anything else, really, than himself, that it’s just shocking in a way because it’s just not what you’re taught to expect from people who have a lot of responsibility and power.
So anyway, so I was very taken with him and the way he talked to us at Notre Dame. And I also – I just admire him. I had read his memoir. You know, his experiences as a minority are obviously very different from mine. But because there are so few blind people or people with any disability really in the public eye, I just really connected with his story and his experience with segregation and racism and people discounting him and telling him, basically trying to put him in a box, like you’re poor and black, and you’re from the South, and you have a place, and this is where you belong. And in ways that I wasn’t, you know, that don’t totally map on, but I could – it resonated with me a lot.
So it just became this pipe dream that, if I could do anything, it would just be the most amazing experience if I could work for him. And funnily enough, the application experience is completely the same. You just send the exact same materials. There’s no fuss. There’s no, like, complicated rigmarole around it. And then my professors just worked with me and helped me, you know, when I did eventually get called for an interview, to prepare for my interviews. And it was just – I still can’t believe that it actually happened because the odds are so small. And not only did I get the privilege of working on the Court, but like for the person that I had admired and was really a role model to me for so long.
GLEN: That’s a great story. And I think, I mean, it obviously speaks to your jurisprudence and your knowledge of the law for them to consider you.
GLEN: So when you apply to clerk for a justice, do you apply to a specific justice? Or do you apply to the Court and they pick you?
LAURA: You do apply to each justice separately, but you are encouraged to apply to all justices, which is what I did. Because like I said, I mean, it would have been a wonderful experience to clerk for any of the justices. But in my heart of hearts, if anybody would call me for an interview, I was hoping that it would be Justice Thomas.
GLEN: What’s the relationship Justice Thomas has with his clerks?
LAURA: He frequently calls his clerks his “kids,” like in interviews, you know, he refers to us as his kids, which is funny because I’m certainly not young anymore. But so, you know, it’s like this family atmosphere, and he cares very deeply about your life and your career path, and you always have someone that you can go to and call, even after the clerkship. So during the clerkship there are a lot of, you know, making points to have lunches together. And there’s a lot of Justice Thomas traditions, like unfortunately we did not do this this year, but his clerks and the justice always go to Gettysburg every year.
He has spoken publicly about all of this, which is that, in his chambers, every clerk works on every case. So there obviously will be a principal clerk who is responsible for writing the bench memo or assisting with the primary whatever is required for the case, but all clerks read all materials. We all participate. We all voice our opinions. And so it’s a very hands-on process, and a process where you are very frequently speaking to the justice and giving him your opinions.
GLEN: I’d like to think we played a small part in your success at the Court by fixing the JAWS problems you reported using Word and Track Changes.
LAURA: I just felt, I mean, truly, like the amount of stress that was taken off my plate because it was stressful enough having to go through those periods of time when the technology wasn’t working exactly properly, but just the stress that was taken away from knowing that I would send an email, the email would be quickly responded to, and that there were people who were dedicated and personally invested in fixing the problem as soon as possible was an amazing – it was just an amazing burden that was lifted off of my shoulders.
GLEN: Well, it goes both ways; right? Because you were probably one of the heaviest users of all aspects of revisions and track changes and all those fine things.
GLEN: And so as a result of us working through your issues, we’ve improved that feature for all sorts of other people who might not have the visibility and the ability to get the same attention.
LAURA: Exactly. All of these things that they’re going to benefit all lawyers and all academics and all people, like whatever it is that you’re doing where you really have to delve into these features. And that way like it just teaches a lot of folks about the parts of Word that maybe they don’t hear about as often that really need attention. I do think that I’ve learned a lot that I can also tell my friends who are blind who use these products, like if you’re having a problem, these are things that you can do that help the software developers figure out what is going on. So that way when you go and you document your problem, you’re giving the folks who need to look at it a lot of useful information that can not only cut down on time because they don’t have to do it themselves, but you’re giving them a better picture of what is going on.
GLEN: It’s great to hear that because, speaking from the other side, we want to help solve problems. And often 90 percent of the issue is being able to replicate it and understand it, and 10 percent is fixing it.
LAURA: Yes, exactly.
GLEN: You mentioned to me before we started recording that many aspects of your job search, both undergrad and after law school, were really, really disheartening because so many employers didn’t really take you seriously, and likely discriminated against you because you’re blind. Why the contrast with that and your professors, who really did respect you and take you seriously?
LAURA: I think where credit is due is that the faculty at Notre Dame are just phenomenal people. Like it could be blindness, it could be unexpected family tragedy striking, but where they will step up. Like they are just really, really – they teach you not only how to be a good professor or a lawyer, but just how to be a good person. That, I think, is a huge part of it. But I also do think that – I think it’s about profit and money. And that I think sometimes like a law firm might be – again, I don’t know this. But it just seems like if you’re sort of like, well, what are we going to have to pay, like what is this person going to need to require to be successful? Or even if this person is successful, are they going to be able to do it at the same speed as everyone else?
The thing that is frustrating to me is that under the ADA you actually are allowed to ask about essential job functions. And I either think that a lot of people don’t know that, or they are afraid because they don’t know exactly where the line is. But the thing that I had freedom with my professors was that I could walk into their class or before class and just say, look, like let’s have a conversation? Like this is how you run your class, like if you write things on the board, or if you use PowerPoint or whatever. And you can just be frank and open and totally comfortable expressing your needs and developing a relationship.
Whereas in the job interviewing process, you know, the employer doesn’t want to go there. They don’t want to talk about anything that could potentially be on the wrong side of the legal line, which unfortunately in my opinion means that sometimes you can’t have those types of conversations that make them realize, like, oh, like she does use Word. Like some people don’t realize that. Some people don’t actually realize that blind people are capable of using an iPhone, or are capable of using the same software that sighted people use; right? And so I do think that that’s a big – that can be a hindrance where we’ve tried to protect from improper discrimination, which is obviously good. But I think that the downfall from that is that people might be too afraid to ask and learn vital information about hiring someone.
GLEN: So I have applied for jobs prior to the ADA, and I would always go in and be very frank about you probably want to ask me about X, so let me answer the question in advance.
LAURA: Yes. I do encourage people to take that approach, especially at the end when they say, like, “Do you have any questions for us?” I think is a really good, like a convenient time to say, “Well, I actually was wondering if you had questions about how I do my class work,” or how I’ve done my job as, you know, whatever your previous work experience has been. But I do recommend that.
GLEN: Are you still working for the firm that you left to become a Supreme Court clerk?
LAURA: Yes. Yes. Well, you know, I left for the clerkship, and then I’m headed back there in October.
GLEN: So why do you think they saw good things about you?
LAURA: I obviously do not want to speak for the firm. But having a clerkship is such a credentialing job because there are only four clerks to every judge. So a judge cannot afford to have a clerk that is not able to do 100 percent of the work. So I think that for me things really changed with my clerkships because it really sent a message that I was capable of doing exactly what a sighted person was able to do.
GLEN: So I think I would be remiss if I didn’t ask, does it take you longer than your sighted colleagues to get this work done?
LAURA: The actual writing portion of what I do probably does not take me longer. But certainly proofreading and the research part, I think that the fact, just the very nature of the way that auditory and braille works versus visually, that the difference in whether you can skim down a page, you put in search terms and they come up highlighted, right, like all of these things that are just designed for sighted people to make their researching more efficient and quicker, a lot of that is just – I don’t have access to it. And so I do think it takes me longer, and I’ve accepted that, and that’s fine. Because I also think that it’s not a net negative.
So for instance, it is usually the case that I have to read more of the case than a sighted person might need to read to realize, oh, this actually isn’t helpful for me; right? So that’s lost time for me, to read things only to realize this isn’t a great fit. But the flipside of that is that, whenever that subject matter comes up that actually is a great fit, my memory might be jogged to, oh, I read something. I read something; right? Whereas, if you’re not reading the case, and you’re only looking for the highlighted terms and things like that, you’re starting from scratch. So because certain things take me longer, I think that in the areas where I can function more or less at the same speed as my able-bodied peers, I am very fast and efficient because you can’t, you know, you just have to use your time as efficiently as possible. So the things I can do quickly, I do pretty quickly, to give myself the time I need to make sure that I’m doing the other things as well as I can.
And then, you know, there are just always going to be things like formatting. I mean, I remember the first time I sort of was in the same room with a sighted colleague as they were finishing up their brief and just sort of clicking around, just to align everything. And I thought to myself, my gosh, if I did that completely on my own and checked every little aspect, like that’s hours of work; right?
So sometimes the solution is you have to figure out what you can delegate. And as you go up in your career, you know, I’m now a fifth-year associate, it’s completely acceptable for me to delegate some of that to my secretaries or paralegals or other people like that. So again, it’s like some things definitely, I think, take longer, and you just have to learn how you can harness that to your benefit in some way.
GLEN: Well, Laura, thank you so much for taking the time to be with us. I know we were going back and forth for quite a while trying to set up the interview. It was just a delight to have you on FSCast.
LAURA: Same, and thank you so much for having me. This is really great.
Signing Off on FSCast 187
GLEN: That’s going to do it for FSCast 187. I’m Glen Gordon. See you soon.