A new meaning to blind justice

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Sandy Studnicka, who is legally blind, went to a job fair for people with disabilities and was hired by a bank. There she worked at a computer terminal, where problematic accounts would come up in red. But she can’t see the color red. Four months later the bank fired her.

“They found me at a disability job fair and let me go because I’m disabled,” said Studnicka, who turned for help to a unique resource, the legal clinic at the Chicago Lighthouse for People Who are Blind or Visually Impaired. They persuaded the bank to double the severance package initially offered to Studnicka, who now works at the Lighthouse.

The organization is 109 years old, though it has a modern, sprawling facility at 1850 W. Roosevelt, offering a wide range of services from child day care to a clock factory employing blind workers to a store offering white canes and Braille greeting cards. On the second floor, in a plain cinderblock room, the Arthur & Esther Kane Legal Clinic, the only entity in the country geared specifically to helping clients who have trouble seeing.

OPINION

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Navigating the legal system can be frustrating enough for those who can see. Now consider the stumbling blocks facing the blind.

“Everything’s in print,” said Paul Rink, a lawyer and the clinic’s director.

“People can’t read their documents,” added Carol Anderson, the clinic’s second attorney. “They don’t know what documents they have. We know how to handle those situations. We help reading and organizing their documents, and explain their documents to them.”

Rink and Anderson are both blind. The clinichas a sighted administrative assistant, Cacia Sit, who helps read and organize legal papers, as well as interns, though finding volunteers can be a challenge.

“They’re not beating down our doors to come help us,” said Rink. “But we have managed to get the number that we needed, most of the time.”

The volunteers help sift through the papers their clients bring in.

“A lot of mail, and they’re not always sure what’s important and what’s not,” said Sit. “It’s much harder when you’re blind, you have to have people read your mail to you, and not everyone is good at that.”

The clinic is free. “We’re open to anybody who’s blind or visually impaired,” said Anderson.

It was founded 10 years ago by retired Cook County Circuit Judge Nicholas Pomaro, who called it “the best thing I’ve ever done.”

“People are just so grateful for even the smallest bit of assistance,” he told the Tribune in 2008.

The blind face all the legal woes confronting sighted people, but also tend to encounter more than their share of certain troubles, such as discrimination in housing and employment — only 25 percent of blind people in the United States have jobs.

“We do a lot of Social Security help,” said Sit.

Before coming to the Lighthouse, Rink worked for Continental Bank for 20 years, then joined the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission. Anderson went to University of Chicago Law School before she became blind, not long after graduation. Rink graduated from Northwestern University Law School and passed the bar, on his first try, while being totally blind since birth.

Many sighted students have trouble completing law school. How did Rink manage it?

“My mother read me at least half of my textbooks,” he said. “And half were recorded by Recording for the Blind.”

Later he used an Optacon, a cumbersome device that transfers text into raised bumps, one letter at a time.

“It was slow and very laborious,” he said. “Then in the ’90s, the computer came out. I always had good computer equipment.”

He joined the Lighthouse clinic in 2010, after he retired.

The clinic primarily focuses on basic legal work: writing letters, filling out forms.

“We don’t take cases to court,” said Anderson. “We give preliminary advice. We write documents and do limited work before administrative agencies.”

If more complex legal work is required, the Lighthouse will refer clients to law firms that do pro bono assistance. Rink named several prominent firms they work with then, showing lawyerly caution, decided it best not to mention the firms specifically.

“We have a number of firms that help us, and I hate toexcludeany,” he said.

The clinic helps about 170 clients a year.

“We try to take people within a week or two,” said Anderson.

To reach the clinic, call (312) 666-1331, Ext. 3112.

Follow Neil Steinberg on Twitter: @NeilSteinberg

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