Bar News - August 19, 2015
Practitioner Profile: Breaking Down Barriers
By: Carol Robidoux
An advocate for people with disabilities, Sheila Zakre was born with achromatopsia, a defect in the cone cells in the retina.
Zakre uses a special computer monitor and a telescope attachment for her glasses.
Sheila Zakre has been practicing law for more than two decades, concentrating her practice in disability law and human rights issues. It’s been a natural fit for someone with Zakre’s experience and unique qualifications – she was born with a gift of gab, an innate sense of justice and a congenital visual impairment.
“I don’t know that I always wanted to be an attorney, but I loved to argue as a kid, and that’s part of the job description, isn’t it?” says Zakre. “I was always interested in law, but as a passionate liberal arts graduate with a profound interest in civil rights, it was really a natural progression for me.”
Zakre’s graduation from college in 1980 coincided with the national movement toward deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill. She got a job at the now-defunct Belchertown State School, working in a community integration program for those being deinstitutionalized.
“I went there specifically because of my interest in civil rights, but also because of my interest in institutions. I wasn’t thinking about myself at the time, but the eye-opening experience I had working with people who had severe retardation in institutional settings was what motivated me to find a law school that focused on human needs,” says Zakre.
For that reason she was drawn to CUNY Law School, established in 1983 as a “public interest law school” educating lawyers to make a difference in communities by training them to serve “the underprivileged and disempowered.”
After law school, Zakre worked as a staff attorney at Community Legal Services in Philadelphia before moving with her husband, Bob Sanders – now a business reporter for New Hampshire Business Review – to New York State where she served as co-director of the Homeless Persons Representation Clinic at Syracuse University School of Law.
In 1992, Zakre was hired as a staff attorney at the Disabilities Rights Center in Concord before joining Laboe Associates in 2003, a job that allowed her more flexibility in scheduling while she and her husband raised their three children, David, Rosie and Alicia.
She notes that her son David, born with a developmental disability, is able to lead an independent life, working at a local supermarket and living in a public housing complex for the elderly and disabled in Concord. “It’s been useful, given his situation, to have my background,” says Zakre.
Professionally, Zakre says she has always found a way to meet whatever challenges her visual limitations present – she was born with achromatopsia, a defect in the cone cells in the retina. “So that means I’m totally color blind and basically blinded by outdoor light. I’m legally blind, so if something is close I can see it the way others see it, but at a distance I can’t see fine details, like the expression on a judge’s face during a court proceeding, for example.”
That is one of the many things she’s learned by trial and error – no pun intended.
“A judge will often look at you when they’re waiting for an answer. It’s a subtle thing, but if I’m unable to see that, I miss those visual cues in the courtroom. I’ve learned to tell judges up front that I can’t see their faces. Nobody will tell you what’s happening, but you learn these things as you’re going along,” says Zakre.
In 2005 Zakre opened her own practice on Park Street in Concord, Zakre Law Office, situated close to home. This allows her to take advantage of Concord’s walkability factor, which is a work in progress. Zakre volunteers for the city’s Transportation Policy Advisory Committee, to add her voice to the mix as the city continues to work on transportation and accessibility issues. She’s also sits on the board of directors for the NH Association for the Blind and the NHBA CLE Committee.
Zakre knows first-hand about the challenges transportation poses for those with disabilities living in New Hampshire. When she can’t walk to work or appointments, she rides the bus between Concord and Manchester. “I’m the only one with a briefcase who rides that bus, but I have professional obligations, so I do what I have to do,” she says.
She also relies on cab service to get her where she has to go, which limits the kinds of court appointments she can accept.
“It’s definitely a financial challenge if you don’t drive. I have taken cabs to get to court in Nashua – that’s $75 one way, so you’re looking at $150 round trip, and I can’t charge the client for that. I can charge my mileage, but I eat that cost, so that’s different and definitely a challenge,” says Zakre.
She is a strong advocate for improving New Hampshire’s public transportation system, not only because of her own experience, but because she hears regularly from people who encounter similar hurdles. “A lot of places in New Hampshire might as well be on the moon for me, because I can’t get there, and we’re just not investing in public transportation in New Hampshire.”
It’s been 25 years since the Americans with Disabilities Act was established, and people are only now beginning to talk about disability issues with equal parts understanding and acceptance, she says. “There’s still a long way to go – there are a lot of little things that, after 25 years, you’d think would be happening, like having menus at restaurants or theaters available in large print, things like that.”
Zakre says one of the trends she’s noted over her years of working with families whose children are living with disabilities is a shift in thinking due to a shift in the economic reality of living with a disability.
“A lot of people who are lacking in skills and therefore have a great disadvantage in the job market are applying for SSI. Back when I started practicing, parents were asking, what kinds of jobs can my kids do to support themselves. Now, they’re asking, how can my child keep their SSI benefits,” says Zakre, who sees a similar trend with the elderly.
“I am seeing a growing trend in people who are so concerned about being able to survive without assistance. As our economy changes, people with physical or mental barriers – as well as the elderly – are becoming more needful of programs to survive,” says Zakre. “That is something that for me goes beyond the obvious instances of discrimination. For me, it’s about how the law can change policies and practices that make this a world where everyone can live and work, without barriers.”