By Dustin J. Seibert
Chicago Lawyer correspondent
The Chicago Lighthouse’s Arthur and Esther Kane Legal Clinic, founded in 2005, is the only one of its kind in the country that provides free legal services to the blind and visually impaired.
Paul Rink, the clinic director, has been legally blind since shortly after birth; Carol Anderson, who serves as an attorney under Rink, became blind as an adult, shortly after graduating from University of Chicago Law School. She holds several degrees, including a master’s in French from Stanford University.
While Anderson is a full-time employee of Chicago Lighthouse, Rink works pro bono a minimum of one day a week in the office. He joined the clinic after retiring from a 40-year career that he finished at the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission. He’s spent several decades on the board of directors for the Chicago Lighthouse, a nonprofit that has assisted people with impaired vision and other disabilities for more than 110 years.
Together, the two serve as what is often the only line of legal defense for a vulnerable group of people who suffer not only from physical challenges, but by financial ones as well.
CL: How has being blind affected your legal career?
Rink: I never filled out ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) materials asking for accommodations — things just worked out for me because, with each employer I was able to discuss my needs and we managed to do things informally. I was very much assisted by the development of computers to scan in all the documents I needed. I scanned in all briefs, records and memoranda into a computer that read them to me and made my Braille notes from there. The reading level was incredibly extensive, and we heard about as many of 23 or 24 cases a week. I needed that computer as my reader because no human could’ve done as much as I needed it to.
Anderson: I didn’t seek a job practicing law because I was visually impaired and didn’t think there were opportunities for me. But when I came here to work with the clinic, I was given accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act. I used dogs and computer screen reader programs, including a program called OpenBook, which reads whatever is printed on a piece of paper.
CL: What brought you to Lighthouse/Kane Legal Clinic?
Rink: I’d been a board of directors member for the Chicago Lighthouse since 1979 and was a friend of Cook County Circuit Judge Nicholas Pomaro, who founded the clinic. He and I discussed the need for a clinic before he retired from his judgeship and thought it would be a good idea to found one. I was still working at the time, but was committed to helping him out after I retired. We were both on the board when he founded the clinic in 2006. I worked with Pomaro from 2010 to 2013, then he retired in 2013 and they needed someone to be a director, so I filled the post.
Anderson: I came to Chicago Lighthouse to enroll in its office skills program, which gives computer training to the blind and visually impaired. After that I was hired as an intern in their financial development department and they noticed I had legal credentials and thought I might want to work in the legal clinic. I’ve been here almost three and a half years.
CL: Who works for and within the clinic?
Rink: If we need to seek assistance for litigation, we have a few firms that give us pro bono help. This is an area we really need to grow in because we don’t have a large enough stable of attorneys upon whom we can call for assistance when it would be useful, so we’re always looking for more help. We also use interns from law schools, but they aren’t around as often as they used to be. We get administrative help from Lighthouse, including secretarial help, and a retired attorney who works for us. Carol takes all the initial phone calls — she does a tremendous job in dealing with clients and giving them initial advice, and if they need more, we work together on it.
CL: What is the general demographic of clients you serve?
Rink: Because we’re free, we are used largely by blind people simply to discuss legal questions they may have. For example, we get people who may have some problem with a spouse and simply want to find out how divorce works and how the laws benefit them. Or we might have someone who is not getting along with their landlord and simply wants advice on what to do and say to the landlord. Sometimes we have clients who know exactly what they want.
Anderson: One thing that distinguishes the services we provide from what they would get in a law firm downtown is that we help our clients with reading and organizing documents. We explain what’s in those documents, because they often come in with a bunch of papers and have no idea what they’re holding; we make sense of all that. They don’t have to pay $600 an hour to have that service provided at a downtown firm, and [the firm] likely wouldn’t do it, I think.
The greatest number of our cases concern the Social Security Administration. We do application forms for government benefits; when people can’t get their benefits, we do the appeals. Another area of law is employment discrimination — we handle charges filed with the Illinois Department of Human Rights, and also mediation that clients need to pursue charges of discrimination and get a settlement.
CL: Have you witnessed any trends in client issues?
Anderson: A trend I’m seeing a lot of lately involves discrimination within employment and education. Employers and schools don’t want to provide accommodations that people need to perform job duties or complete courses, like dogs and OpenBook. Students and employees simply cannot get them.
Rink: These are accommodations that are very clearly required by the ADA, but employers, colleges and other institutions drag their feet and do what they can to avoid what is pretty clear in the law. We also are very involved in landlord-tenant situations; many of our clients are very poor and they often live in substandard housing; repairs are not done in apartments and issues like that and landlords need to be leaned on to shape up.
CL: What do you enjoy the most about your work?
Anderson: We’re very much needed where we are now. Our clients, in many cases, are the poorest of the poor and they live in the worst situations in the city. Without us, they might not get legal help at all. I get a lot of calls from clients saying the other legal aid clinics are full and they can’t take our clients for one reason or the other. Sometimes, we’re their only hope for getting any help at all. Because we’re blind ourselves, our sensitivity to their needs make us very familiar to kinds of work they need done. For example, Social Security, work is different for the blind than the nonblind, so the fact that we specialize in that is extremely beneficial to our clients.
Rink: I was very blessed and fortunate to have a mostly satisfying and challenging legal career. Surprisingly, I did not have to work hard to find a job and I never had a period of unemployment in my 40 years. I’m very grateful for that and I want to help others who are less fortunate to have as good a life as they can and experience the legal system in a manner that’s as open and helpful to them as possible.