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Tokyo Olympics: Meet the blind Sidley associate going for gold

  • Jenna Greene, Reuters
    Published: 2021-07-25 10:21:16 BdST

bdnews24

Five years ago, Sidley Austin (law firm based in the United States) associate Matt Simpson, who is blind, won a silver medal at the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

In a few weeks, he’ll be going for gold at the Paralympics in Tokyo as a member of the US goalball team, an intensely physical sport designed exclusively for people with visual impairments.

As an elite athlete and Big Law associate, Simpson, 31, told me he hopes to “challenge the assumptions” about what is possible for people with disabilities.

“I’m very grateful to Sidley for allowing me to juggle both pursuits,” he said.

Still, he admits that balancing his work as a first-year lawyer in the white-collar group in Washington, DC, with his rigorous Paralympic training schedule – oh, and he and his wife had their first baby in January – has meant “I don’t have much free time.” Which strikes me as possibly the understatement of the year.

Simpson is actually the second Sidley lawyer to compete in the Paralympics, which are held every four years in the same cities and venues as the Olympics. The Tokyo games start August 24.

Elizabeth Hardcastle, a fellow DC-based associate in the firm’s healthcare group, competed at the Beijing games in 2008. Partially paralyzed at age 14 in a car crash, she was a member of the US Paralympic Swim Team.

Given the relatively small and tight-knit US Paralympian community, the 2012 Stanford Law School grad says she’s confident no other Big Law firm is similarly represented.

“It obviously speaks to Sidley’s strength in diversity and inclusion,” Hardcastle said.

Both she and Simpson see a direct correlation between their success as athletes and their ability to scale the upper echelons of the legal profession.

It all comes down to dedication, hard work and a desire to excel.

“My ability to compete in the highly-competitive legal field would not have been possible if not for the lessons of training to be the best in the world in sports,” Simpson said.

Born with a congenital retina disease, he discovered goalball at age 10. And it’s extreme.

The sport was invented in 1946 to help rehabilitate World War II veterans who’d lost their sight, according to the International Paralympic Committee. To keep things fair, the players (there are three per side) wear eye shades that block any residual vision they might have.

They hurl what looks like a bowling ball at each other – a 3-pound sphere flung at speeds of up to 50 miles per hour across a volleyball-sized court with tactile markings.

The ball is equipped with a bell, and the players use the sound to block the oncoming ball with their bodies.

Goalball “provided an incredible opportunity to travel the world,” Simpson said. “But it’s not great at paying the bills.”

After winning silver in Rio in 2016, he enrolled in University of Virginia Law School, earning his JD in 2020.

“As a person with a disability, I’m keenly aware of the fact that my greatest asset is my mind,” Simpson said. “Many times, I’m at a disadvantage. I’m blind, and I deal with various limitations. But education is the easiest way to maximize my advantages.”

Law appealed to his competitive drive, he said. It's not clear how many blind or visually impaired lawyers there are in the United States, and the National Federation of the Blind doesn't track numbers.

However, 70 percent of the nation's 7.7 million visually disabled people are not employed full-time.

“The blind population continues to be very poorly educated and with a low employment rate,” Simpson said, adding that he hopes he can be a role model to others in the community.

Simpson said advances in technology have made studying the law more feasible for the visually impaired. Thirty years ago, he noted, he’d have had to listen to tape recordings of most law books or had someone read them aloud to him. While he reads Braille, many materials are not available in that format.

These days, he uses a computer screen reader program, which converts text to speech, “everything from my emails to Westlaw research,” he said. “I feel very fortunate that the technology is so good.”

As the Tokyo Olympics formally open amid rising COVID-19 cases, Simpson remains hopeful the Paralympic Games will go on as scheduled next month.

Competing in the Paralympics, he said, is “a once in a lifetime opportunity, and I get to do it twice.”