Howard Rosenblum, the person moving their hands is the lawyer
By: Carol Colmenares
The first time Howard Rosenblum was given a chance to be first chair in a courtroom was to represent a woman who was deaf who wanted to change her first and last name, on account of being abused by her father. The case was simple because there was no opposing counsel, it was a matter of communicating the client’s needs to the judge. In the courtroom, the judge was perplexed, and kept addressing the interpreter, a woman, who was voicing Howard’s arguments.
- My name is Howard. I'm here to represent this person.
And the judge said, I'm confused. Who's the lawyer?
- I'm the lawyer. This is Howard, the attorney for this client.
And the judge was just as confused because the interpreter was voicing, and the interpreter was female. He was like, «wait, Howard's a female?»
- I answered. The woman who is talking is my interpreter. She's just voicing my argument before the court. I want you to recognize that the person that's moving their hands is the lawyer.
Although we all find the judge’s confusion funny, unfortunately the stereotype persists. It has taken Howard a lifetime to defy and correct this perception.
“Society sees people with disabilities as less. They can do everything if you give them a chance.”
Born in Chicago to a Jewish family, Howard was the youngest of three children. At the age of two, he lost his hearing. Despite none of his family having experience with deafness, his mother, a school teacher, realized the importance of language acquisition. In addition to enrolling her entire family to learn sign language, Howard's mother also found the only school in the suburbs of Chicago that provided education for children with hearing loss.
“Most of the deaf kids went to that school, and they did have hearing students, but we had sessions where they had deaf classes. We were all there. We kind of had the best of both worlds.''
Children with hearing loss from around the world attended that school. Howard was exposed to different cultures and traditions through playdates, sleepovers and long-lasting friendships.
In addition to his school work, Howard also had to complete the assignments given by his mother. She had always instilled in him the belief that he could achieve anything he dreamt of. “But she did encourage me to become a doctor or a lawyer,” says Howard with a chuckle.
At about age 12, Howard’s mom found out about a presentation given by a lawyer who was deaf. At the time, probably the only one in the nation. His name was Lowell J. Myers, a champion of the legal rights of people who were deaf and who also happened to be a Chicagoan. Reluctantly, Howard went to the event, “I mean, who wants to listen to a lawyer?” However, midway through the lecture, something clicked, a light bulb went off, “wait a minute, deaf people can sue hearing people? Whoa, sue, sign me up!”
Thus began Howard’s journey. He was interested in law and could have gone the traditional route of undergraduate pre-law courses, however, he had also scored high on engineering in aptitude tests. At the time when most children with hearing loss were going to the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID) or Gallaudet, Howard opted for Computer Engineering at the University of Arizona.
“NTID did have a technology engineering program, but I wanted to minor in pre-law, and they didn't have that. I ended up visiting a friend in Arizona and was like, wow, this is a good program! They had interpreting, beautiful weather. I was like, okay, why not?”
Afterwards, Howard finished his law degree at Illinois Institute of Technology's Kent College of Law, renowned for its exceptional program in intellectual property law. Despite having the perfect combination of an engineering and a law degree, Howard was struggling to find work. It so happened that Howard began his law school education in 1989, just a year prior to the passage and signing into law of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by President George H.W. Bush. Upon graduating, Howard was approached by some lawyers, urging him to join them in their fight for disabilities’ rights, but his true interest lay in IP law. Nonetheless, he decided to take on an internship, and to his surprise, it reignited his original desire to sue hearing people.
For 10 years, Howard went on to work for a law firm that specialized in disability rights, special education, and probate matters. Despite his commitment, he felt he wasn't thriving. One of the challenges was that many families faced financial constraints, making it difficult to afford the firm’s retainer. In addition, people needed help with a broader range of legal issues such as criminal charges, real estate, adoption, and bankruptcy.
“Often I would have to call on other lawyers, but they did not want to deal with a deaf client - I guess I could have sued them - but that would have taken too long, and they needed help now.”
A man of action, Howard set up a non-for-profit organization, Midwest Center on Law and the Deaf, with the aim of bridging the gap between the deaf and hard of hearing community and the justice system. Howard garnered recognition within the deaf community as one of the very few deaf attorneys in Illinois.
There is a misconception that individuals who are deaf cannot become lawyers due to the belief that lawyers “are just really proficient at arguing and talking, but it's more than that - it’s your ability to research, write and argue using an interpreter.”
In 2011, Howard, serving as the Chief Executive Officer for the National Association of the Deaf (NAD), defied expectations once again. He filed a groundbreaking Disability Civil Rights Lawsuit against Netflix, charging the entertainment giant with violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by refusing to provide closed captioning for “Watch Instantly” movies and television streamed on the Internet. “And we won.”
“Growing up I didn't really have much access to captions except for a few TV shows like Little House on the Prairie, Love Boat and Fantasy Island, things like that - if you wanted to see a movie in a theater, most of them didn't have captions. We would just try to read their lips and understand what was going on.”
For captioned films, Howard would have to wait about one to two years after a movie's initial release for it to arrive in their town. He would then have the opportunity to watch it during a single weekend, with everyone eagerly attending before the film moved on to the next city.
Howard's unwavering dedication and hard work have undoubtedly played a major role in the advancements made in captioning and accessibility. When asked about his free time, a grin spreads across his face as he jokingly responds, "What free time?"
“I still have more that I want to accomplish. I don't feel satisfied. I don't feel content. We don't have equality for people with disabilities, and that's my goal”
Howard's favorite food is Chicago stuffed pizza, he is also an avid traveler, exploring new destinations whenever he can and loves to learn new sign languages. His passion for litigation still vividly burns, yet, before diving into the courtroom drama, he prefers to channel his inner negotiator, seeking common ground and reasoning with the parties involved.
We, at Dicapta are proud to have him as our friend and advisor.