Alumna credits ADA for opportunities, career access

Angela Winfield
Robert Barker/University Photography
Angela Winfield speaks at the 2015 Conference on Disability Access.

As a child, Angela Winfield, J.D. ’08, didn’t think of herself as a person with a disability, despite years of struggle with her eyesight.

“When I was 4 years old, I was diagnosed with juvenile arthritis, inflammation of the eye tissue, cataracts and glaucoma,” Winfield said Oct. 28 at workshop on disability access marking the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“In the context of the ADA, and the definition of disability, I certainly didn't consider myself a person with a disability,” said Winfield. As manager for Cornell’s Northeast ADA Center, she coordinates technical assistance activities and helps develop and deliver ADA learning programs through the ILR School’s Yang-Tan Institute.

Winfield went through surgeries and treatments until she was 10 and was later declared legally blind. “I was wearing corrective lenses … [that] were Coke-bottle thick,” Winfield said.

Others also didn’t see her as someone with a disability, said Winfield, “I had glasses, everyone knew ‘her eyesight ain't so good,’” Winfield said.  “But, they didn't know that I was a person with a disability. They just thought ‘oh, she has poor sight, that's it.’”

The disability became more pronounced during her sophomore year at Barnard College of Columbia University.

“I had a flare-up with uveitis and I went from having sight work – getting around to function and read -- to having no vision in matter of 24 hours,” Winfield said.

Winfield still was not ready to claim her disability, but her interest in the topic began.

“That's when my interest was piqued, and that's when I started looking into disability issues and what it really meant,” Winfield said.

“I was young, and that's what I wanted. I just wanted to be normal, whatever that is, again. But, I wanted to be treated like everyone else.”

Winfield’s interest in becoming a lawyer comes from watching “The Cosby Show.”

“I grew up in the '80s; I saw Claire Huxtable and she was an attorney, and that's what I wanted,” Winfield said. “They never showed her working, and maybe, if they did, I would have chosen a different profession. But I chose that, that's what I wanted to do.”

Winfield had doubts if she could become a lawyer.

“I had never seen anyone with a disability, a woman who was blind practicing law,” Winfield said. “So, I had my doubts about what that meant and what that would look like.”

Winfield was the first blind student to enroll in Cornell Law School in about a decade and she recalls working closely with Cornell Student Disability Services.

“Times had changed, technology had changed an awful lot,” Winfield said. “And it was a new experience for faculty and staff of the law school, and also for me.”

Winfield expressed thanks to the deans and the registrar for accommodations that she received.

“They were the ones who championed me, and helped me get the reasonable accommodations that I needed in the academic setting which included professors' PowerPoint notes, advanced course lists.”

Looking for a law firm job on New York City’s East Side went well until an incident during an interview at a prestigious law firm.

“He kind of just paused and he said, ‘you know, you're saying all the right things, but I just don't know how you can be an attorney and practice law not being able to see.’”

Winfield said she was shocked to hear this from a lawyer, who should know better than to say that in a job interview.

“So, I did what I could in the moment,” Winfield said  “I said ‘you know, well, I don't really know you that well and your capabilities, and maybe you couldn't do it if you couldn't see, but I know myself and I can do this job.’”

Winfield did not receive an offer from the firm, but even if she got an offer, it was not a place that she wanted to work, she said.

Winfield worked for many years at Hiscock & Barclay, LLP (now known as Barclay Damon, LLP), in Syracuse. She represented individuals and private sector companies in disputes, at trial and on appeal.

Appointed to the American Bar Association’s Commission on Disability Rights this year, Winfield shared a quote that she loves with the audience.

“Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance.”

Winfield calls the ADA the floor for a solid foundation of access. The law prohibits discrimination based on disability and also requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for workers with disabilities.

“My life would not be the same without it, I wouldn't have had the opportunities, the access, the support and mechanism for getting accommodations when I need them.”

“If they weren't willingly given, I wouldn't have that legal backup behind me saying, yes, this is the right thing to do.”

“But, this is the story of the ADA. And that story is to be continued,” Winfield said. “I look forward to what's to come in the next 25 years.”

David Ticzon ’18 is an intern for the ILR School.

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Melissa Osgood