Thirty years ago, a bicycle accident left me paralyzed from the neck down. At sixteen years old, I spent a year and a half in a New York City hospital, 60 miles from my home on Long Island, New York. Returning home, I was confronted with the challenge of beginning a new way of life. Unable to perform the most basic activities of daily living, I was 100% dependent upon others for these needs.
The challenges that I faced seemed mountainous, and to overcome them would not only take the ability to accept what had happened, but also to adapt to new ways of living. To achieve this, technology would play an enormous role; a term called “Assistive Technology.”
Assistive technology includes any item, piece of equipment, adaptive, or rehabilitative device that increases the independence and functional capabilities of someone living with a disability. It could be something like computer technology, a hearing aid, or something as common as a walking cane.
I was first exposed to this technology during the time I spent rehabilitating in the hospital. The need arose when I made the decision to complete my junior year of high school, which was necessary if I wanted to graduate with my class. To achieve this, I needed to figure out how to complete my school assignments. That was the first time I heard of Assistive Technology.
One choice was to write assignments using a mouth stick to press keys on an electronic typewriter. The second choice was to learn to use a more innovative, computer-like assistive device. I chose the latter.
At first sight, the device looked a bit archaic. It had a gooseneck that on one end looked like a toggle switch, while the other end connected to a small computer screen that displayed letters and words. Using my lips, I was able to toggle the switch up and down, which moved the cursor across the computer screen. In doing so, I could select letters or pre-formatted words, thus making sentences. It seemed daunting at first, but much more efficient and effective than the other option. With this technology, I completed my junior year of high school.
When I returned home, I had to start thinking about my future. Not what my life would be one year later, but what it would be like 10 or 15 years down the road. I was able to complete my senior year, and in 1987, graduate with my high school class. But that was just the beginning. I started reading about how fellow quadriplegics managed their lives, and while every situation was unique, we had one thing in common: wanting to be independent. To reach this goal, I knew that education would be my greatest ally. So, I started to do some soul-searching to see what I wanted to “do with the rest of my life.”
Prior to my accident, my dream was to become an architect, but that dream vanished the moment I collided with that car. Without the use of my hands and arms, I could not draw, and computers were not sophisticated enough to allow me to pursue that profession.
I began looking into different colleges. After speaking with advisors, friends, and family members, I quickly developed an interest in the law, but I had to be realistic. First, I had to get a bachelor’s degree, so I applied and was accepted to the New York Institute of Technology (NYIT). However, there were some practical issues I had to face, especially that there would be a great deal more reading and writing. The assistive technology that I had become so accustomed to using quickly became outdated.
A bit of a technology nerd, I did some research and discovered something called “Voice Recognition Software.” At the time, there was a little-known program called DragonDictate, now known as Dragon NaturallySpeaking (Dragon). Using a headset microphone, I simply had to speak commands, words, or phrases to have total control over the computer. For instance, saying, “Start Microsoft Word” opened the application, and I could immediately begin saying words and watch them appear on the screen. It was amazing.
The recognition of words and commands was over 90% accurate and it allowed me to operate an array of applications. I could even search the Internet and send emails. With it, college was a breeze and in 1995, I graduated with a BS in Interdisciplinary Studies.
The next step was law school; I applied and was accepted by Touro College Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center (Touro). While law school presented new challenges, the Americans With Disabilities Act was in effect, and Touro accommodated all of my needs—not only physical access such as accessible classrooms and bathrooms, but also programmatic ones, such as granting me extended time, the use of my voice-activated computer, and Dragon NaturallySpeaking to take exams. In 2000, I earned my JD.
My dream of having a foundation to build my future upon was in my grasp. The bar exam proved to be as difficult as advertised, but with that behind me, I began a new chapter in my life. I was an attorney.
After graduating law school, I worked for a small law firm that focused on the Civil Rights Law and the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1992. After a couple years, I was presented with the opportunity to become an Executive Director of an independent living center—a disability advocacy organization that provided programs and services to individuals living with disabilities. Although rewarding, I still had the dream of starting my own law practice and creating a new nonprofit, which would improve the lives of and strengthen the opportunities for people with disabilities living on Long Island, New York.
In 2013, I was presented with that opportunity. I became part of Touro’s newly formed Community Justice Center, a group of independent law offices dedicated to providing legal services to the residents of Suffolk County, especially to those with limited resources. My practice centered on providing services in the areas of Disability Law; Wills, Trusts, and Estates; Elder Law, and Discrimination. I also incorporated a nonprofit, the Disability Resource and Development Center, Inc., which is still in development.
These ventures would bring new, technical challenges. My paralysis required me to have a hands-free environment. I needed the ability to not only operate my computer, but to perform tasks such as using a telephone, cell phone, take notes, operate peripheral devices, all hands-free. All of this was achievable, as I turned to Dragon NaturallySpeaking once again. It allowed me to do things such as make telephone calls via Skype and take notes into a digital recorder that Dragon would later transcribe into the computer. It also allowed me to operate essential programs such as QuickBooks, Westlaw, Lexus, and Clio to manage some of the administrative requirements of operating a law practice.
We all take advantage of the simple things in life, such as using a computer, cell phone, or even driving a car. To someone with a disability, these things mean much more—they mean success, independence, and, in many ways, happiness. Now married with a life that I can call my own, my success is far greater than these achievements, but each piece was a stepping stone to where I am now.