Learning without seeing

A Malibu resident waits for the results of her bar exam, having gone through law school at Pepperdine. The fact that she’s blind does not stop her from pursuing her dreams.

By Carolanne Sudderth/Special to The Malibu Times

Like many Pepperdine graduates, Malibu resident Cathryn Bonnette just finished law school and is waiting to hear if she passed the bar.

Unlike her fellows, Bonnette is blind – but her disability was not enough to stop her from pursuing her dream.

She took the bar with the aid of a “qualified reader” – generally, an attorney or a law student awaiting the results of their bar exam. The bar is not a series of questions one reads through from start to finish. The test contains “fact patterns” jam-packed with evidence, some of it relevant, some of it not. It is up to the examinee to determine what is important.

Bonnette would have her readers read the entire exam for her, including the questions, “and then I’ll know what things are important and I’ll say, ‘Mark that,’ they have to be able find [the passage] again.”

“You have to work with someone else’s eyes, but they have to pretty much know what you know, and if they don’t, it’s a severe disadvantage. They have to be able to retrieve certain kinds of information from that fact pattern.”

To Bonnette, her dream is not that unusual. There have been blind lawyers for longer than I can say,” she told The Malibu Times. “There’s even a blind lawyer’s association. One attorney said to me, what’s great about the law is you don’t have to see the law in order to learn it.”

This is not her first career. She started out as a pastor, but found she was not having the impact she wanted to have.

“[It’s hard enough being a] woman, and then if you add some kind of disability that’s visible, it’s even more difficult.”

She left the ministry and moved into a sales job.

“And then I said, ‘you know, this is not happening the way I want it to. I’m doing this now, but what am I going to do with the rest of my life?’ “

Bonnette’s teacher at “a little red-neck one-room high school in Michigan” half-jokingly predicted she would become a lady lawyer.

“We actually had an eighth-grade graduation since we had all been together since kindergarten. One of the jokes … one of the spoofs was where we were going to be in 20 years, and the principal said, ‘Catherine’s going to become a lady lawyer.’ I didn’t even remember it until this year – but now it’s the real thing.”

At that point, Bonnette wore glasses and could do her own reading. Shortly after graduation, her vision began to fade. Today, she is not completely blind. There is still some sight in one eye. She sees colors and shapes but puts herself past the point of being “legally blind” – 20/400 corrected (20/200 corrected is considered legally blind).

“I can see a few fingers about four feet in front of myself,” she said.

A closed circuit TV enables her to do some of her own reading.

“[It] makes print very, very large,” she said, much larger than that in large-print books at the library – and uses the same technology to look at or create diagrams. “Visually, it’s much faster than waiting for a computer to scan it in.”

She writes her briefs with the aid of a specialized “talking” computer – the same computer that she would be using in law practice. “The computer would read the key that I had just typed, and then, I hit the up arrow, and it reads the line I just typed back.”

Nevertheless, she uses a guide dog (her German Shepherd, Heidi) and might carry a white cane in crowded places. “It doesn’t help me much, but it lets other people know.”

Most of all, she’s looking forward to a career in litigation, “whatever the focus.”

She doesn’t see working with evidence as a problem. She would have an assistant with her and unlike Perry Mason’s last-minute witnesses, “discovery” laws prohibit surprises in court.

“It’s not the way they do it on TV, because there are rules about last minute surprises. You can’t do that,” Bonnette explained. “Both sides know what the other side is using. I would have a chance to look at [the evidence] with an assistant, and say ‘Describe this to me; tell me what this looks like.’ “

In the meantime, Bonnette is just waiting. Preliminary bar results will be available Friday on the Internet. From there, the hard part will be deciding where her focus will lie.

“Truthfully, there are interesting things about many areas of law,” she said. “I could list five or six where there is something interesting to me. It’s just if you have to pick one to specialize in.”

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The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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