Neurodiversity describes the fact that people process information and interact with the world around them in different ways. This is true for all of us because we all have ways in which our brains are different from one another’s.
A common example of neurodiversity is dyslexia, which various sources estimate affects between 15 to 20 percent of the general population. Dyslexia is often identified in childhood when children are learning to read and write.
Along with the difficulties that dyslexia presents regarding reading and language processing, a person with dyslexia often must overcome inaccurate negative messages about what dyslexia means in terms of their intelligence or abilities. These negative messages can be externally or self-imposed.
A powerful tool to counteract those inaccurate messages is hearing real stories from lawyers who have experienced that struggle, persisted through it, and come out stronger on the other side. One such story is from Salomon Chiquiar-Rabinovich.
-- Shawn Healy, Ph.D., Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers
Standing next to my parents in the office of the principal of the Colegio Israelita de Mexico, I realized as a third-grader that my chances of moving on to fourth grade were at risk.
The school felt that I couldn’t read at the minimum level expected. The principal told my parents, “Your son is intelligent but has no prospects of finishing grade school. Parallel to Spanish, we are teaching them Hebrew and Yiddish, and even with private tutors, I don’t see how he will be able to make it.”
I remember this conversation vividly. Through the dedication of my parents, tutors and allied teachers, who strengthened my determination not to give up, I was able to stay in that school and developed a love for learning through unconventional methods.
Dyslexia, as a label, did not attach to me until I started high school, when I was finally diagnosed. Dyslexia is a neurologically based physical disorder affecting the decoding of symbols (both letters and numbers). It is of genetic origin; there is no “cure” for it.
“Typical readers learn how to associate letters with a specific sound. All they have to do is look at the letters and it’s automatic,” explains Dr. Sally E. Shaywitz, co-director of the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity. “It’s like breathing: You don’t have to tell your lungs to take in air. In dyslexia, this process remains manual. Each time a dyslexic sees a word, it’s as if they’ve never seen it before. People with dyslexia have to read slowly, re-read, and sometimes use a marker so they don’t lose their place.” (“Dyslexia: Some very smart accomplished people cannot read well,” ScienceDaily, Dec. 19, 2009)
Following my diagnosis, I was sent from Mexico to the Pennsylvania Vision Institute in Pittsburgh, a pioneering center for the emerging field of developmental vision training, where I learned how to use binocular vision effectively. This helped me compensate for the effects of dyslexia, reducing the stress in my eyes while reading.
After two summers of intensive vision training, I excelled in school. In 1981, I was admitted to Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service to begin my undergraduate studies. After college, I stayed at Georgetown to complete a four-year joint J.D. and master’s in international affairs program.
Dyslexics need accommodations and strong allies to get through law school. I was fortunate to have the support of Georgetown’s dean of students, Everett Bellamy, who offered me accommodations such as time and a half for exams, having the fact patterns of the questions recorded for me, and allowing me to tape-record my answers.
This outstanding support was so essential to me becoming a lawyer that I have been privileged to maintain a mentorship and friendship with Dean Bellamy to this day.
Once in practice, being dyslexic, reading slower, and requiring accommodations to produce work (such as depending on assistance in typing and proofreading to meet deadlines), can prevent an associate from meeting the minimal budget of billable hours and demonstrating the competitive edge needed to progress onto partnership.
The stigma attached to being dyslexic remains in the profession. It devalues one’s image and affects one’s emotional well-being and level of compensation. The emotional damage is harder to bear than the financial.
Attorneys with different abilities can thrive if adequately accommodated. I was able to add value to my performance at the firms where I worked in business development, and leveraged my international affairs training and multicultural competencies in collaborations and alliance-building with foreign law firms.
The attorneys with dyslexia I have become allies with throughout my career share my strengths in problem-solving and interpersonal skills vital to client relationships.
My leadership role in the Hispanic National Bar Association and the Massachusetts Association of Hispanic Attorneys translated into providing added value to the firms where I have worked in establishing their visibility in diversity, equity and inclusion efforts within the profession.
Following my tenure at MAHA in 2015, I became involved in founding the Attorneys with Disabilities Committee of the Boston Bar Association, where I continue to serve as the co-chair and have developed a close collaboration with the Supreme Judicial Court Standing Committee on Lawyer Well-Being.
Participating in the advocacy programs for the inclusion of people of all abilities of the Ruderman Family Foundation and the network of resources through the International Dyslexia Association has been fundamental to my DE&I advocacy activism.
The post-pandemic return to the “new normal” offers opportunities for a long-overdue progressive change for neurodivergent attorneys, with a shift in the current mindset from awareness of thinking and performance differences to an appreciation of the great value neurodivergent attorneys can bring to the legal community.
Last fall, parallel to my practice as an immigration attorney, I enrolled in a master’s program in leadership and administration at Boston College, with a concentration in diversity and inclusion, to deepen my understanding of the theory of the growing DE&I professional field.
David Boies’ success story as an outstanding attorney is featured among the public figures who self-identify as dyslexics by the Yale University Center for Dyslexia & Creativity. His story and the empathy he shares toward his dyslexic children strike a personal chord with me.
The writing of this article coincided with the beginning of the Passover holiday. I was proud to watch my three children (Hayim, 7; Ilana, 12; and Gabriella, 16) actively participate in the readings at the two Seders. Fortunately, each of them has had developmental vision training interventions that are far more advanced and effective than were available to me at an earlier age.
I call my children’s attention to the story of the advocacy of Moses, who felt he was not fit for his lawyering role when God selected him. He argued that his speech impediment would not allow him to perform his job. Not accepting his objections, God provided him with the accommodation of his brother Aaron to speak for him, making Moses the first accommodated advocate from time immemorial. If he could do it, I tell my children, you can do it as well.
Salomon Chiquiar-Rabinovich, of counsel at Moreno Law in Boston, specializes in business immigration. He is co-chair of the Boston Bar Association Attorneys with Disabilities Committee, board member of the BBA DE&I Section, a former president of the Massachusetts Association of Hispanic Attorneys, and a former regional president of the Hispanic National Bar Association. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article — which was written with the collaboration of Christina Farmer and Nicholas Lojo — first appeared in the July 11, 2022, issue of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly and is part of a series from the Massachusetts Bar Association Lawyer Well-Being Committee.