The Society of Visually Impaired Lawyers

Student Support

Introduction

From the time when Sir John Fielding presided as a magistrate in Bow Street, the law has provided excellent opportunities for visually impaired people to compete for professional success and excellence with their sighted colleagues. The essence of being an outstanding lawyer is the acquisition and use of a body of knowledge which must be kept up-to-date by constant study.

The visually impaired student intending to make the law his/her chosen career faces challenges over and above those faced by his/her sighted colleagues in this demanding and rewarding field of endeavour. There are a number of very practical ways in which the student can be assisted to overcome these challenges, and the aim of this page is to outline the help available. This outline will begin with the means by which the student can gain assistance to assimilate the material necessary to get as good a degree as he/she is capable of and will conclude with some tips on finding a training contract or a place in chambers as a pupil.

Studying

All institutions of Higher Learning have designated members of staff tasked with assisting disabled students and institutions have a legal obligation to provide reasonable adjustments for visually impaired students on a course.

Tips for any student considering studying law, include:

  1. Consider, well in advance of the course, how you are going to study most efficiently. This includes how you are going to "read" materials, conduct research, take notes that you can easily refer back to and take assessments. This will be dependent on your preferred/possible formats for reading and writing.
  2. Contact the institution as early as possible, even prior to making an application for a place on the course, to discuss the facilities for visually impaired students already available at that institution and any additional reasonable adjustments that you may need to study on the course. The more notice an institution has of a student's preferred format the more help the institution will be able to offer in producing course materials in that format and/or making other reasonable adjustments in time for the start of the course.
  3. Consider what assistive technology would help you study efficiently. Advice and information can be obtained from a number of independent organisations, such as the RNIB and from attending technology fairs to find out what equipment is available.
  4. Apply for a Disabled Students Allowance and any other grants available to assist with the cost of any specialist equipment and other reasonable adjustments required. Applications for a Disabled Students Allowance are made, in advance of the course, to the local authority. The application process can be quite drawn out and will include an assessment of need. The assessment will be conducted by an advisor but it is a good idea to have a clear and reasoned opinion of any equipment, software and human assistance that you might need in advance of the assessment to discuss with the assessor. Other grants may be available from the academic institution or external organisations. For example, Graham Rushton, a visually impaired lawyer, left a legacy of £150'000 to the RNIB, with the investment income to be used as a grant to assist visually impaired law students studying English law in the United Kingdom. The grants from the interest are awarded annually and application forms can be obtained from an employment development officer at the RNIB. Priority tends to be given to students who have reached a point in their studies where there is little or no alternative funding available from public sources.
  5. Your own forward planning and organisational skills are important to ensure that reasonable adjustments are made for you in advance and during your course. For example, obtaining reading lists in advance and making arrangements for converting into an accessible format, discussing reasonable adjustments etc.
  6. During the course, contact the disability welfare officer or your tutor as soon as possible if you realize that the arrangements put in place are not working or the arrangements need to be changed.

The biggest challenge faced by visually impaired students is typically accessing the written materials that they need to read in an accessible format in time to be of use and within financial constraints available. Some pointers are set out below and on the Useful Resources page.

It should be noted that copyright legislation permits a visually impaired person (or someone on behalf of a visually impaired person) to make a copy of a hard copy text for the purpose of transforming or converting that text into an accessible format. This would include scanning a whole text to convert into an electronic accessible file, synthetic audio or to convert into braille, or producing an enlarged photocopy. The publisher's permission is not required for the purposes of producing a copy of the text in an accessible alternative format for a visually impaired student.

Publishers of legal textbooks may be willing to provide an electronic version of student or practitioner texts to a visually impaired student or an institution for the use of a particular visually impaired student. The approach taken by publishers varies and may require the institution/student to confirm that they have purchased a print copy of the text; the disabled students welfare officer to confirm that the student is studying at the institution; the institution and/or student to sign a licence agreement restricting use of the file; and/or payment of a fee. Even if a publisher is willing to provide electronic files to the student, the files may be in a format not immediately accessible to the student, for example, in PDF or similar image files that are difficult to access with screen reading software. Irrespective of the format, however, it may be less time consuming or costly to convert such electronic files into an accessible format than scanning a hard copy book into a computer from scratch or producing enlarged photocopies of a whole text.

The RNIB's Learning and Skills Library has a small law section and this can be accessed by going to www.rnib.org.uk/library.

In addition to the library facility, the RNIB has a number of recording centres throughout the UK staffed by volunteer readers, and these centres may be willing to record printed material for individual students. The student must provide the printed material he/she wants recorded. Current details of the existing recording centres can be obtained from the www.rnib.org.uk/library Customer Services team on 0303 123 9999.

Many students conduct legal research on the internet. There are some free archives containing both statute and case law; some of these sites can be found on our Useful Resources page. In addition there are a number of subscriber only sites such as Lexis Library, Lawtel, Justice and Westlaw. Free access to these subscription sites by students will be possible if the institution at which they are studying is a subscriber to the relevant service. Students may be able to conduct research and access some materials using these free or subscription services with appropriate assistive technology.

A number of legal textbooks are now published on CD Rom, but these may not be immediately accessible to the visually impaired student, depending on the format of the search facility and text and the type of assistive technology, if any, used by the student.

Careers in Law

The student is advised to begin his/her search for a training contract or pupillage well before the end of his/her university or vocational training course. General information about careers in law can be obtained from the Bar Council and Law Society websites. In the same way as contemporaries, visually impaired students can obtain advice about career options and information about applications from their institution's careers service, careers/law fairs, tutors and potential employers. There are also independent organisations offering assistance to visually impaired students in obtaining training contracts, pupillages and work experience placements, such as Blind in Business who can be contacted via their website at www.blindinbusiness.org.uk, however, such assistance should not be viewed as a substitute for a student's own research and initiative. Such assistance does not facilitate an inside track or short cut to the usual application process.

A visually impaired lawyer is likely to need some form of reasonable adjustments in order to access written material, conduct research and take notes whilst in employment. There is a UK government scheme known as the "Access to Work" scheme, which provides the self-employed visually impaired lawyer with financial assistance or an employer with a contribution to the cost of any reasonable adjustments required for the lawyer to conduct their work. This may include paying readers and the purchase of specialist equipment/software. Information about the "Access to Work" scheme is obtainable from RNIB at www.rnib.org.uk/employment.

Mentoring

Some SOVIL members are willing to act as mentors to young lawyers or law students. We have prepared some guidance on the scope of the mentoring available. A request for mentoring assistance can be submitted by contacting us.