Reflections after four decades practicing law

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– Photo by Jo Mathis


By Jo Mathis

Legal News

It’s a sunny afternoon in northwest Ann Arbor, and Roger Chard is sitting in his screened-in porch talking about the ducks he and his partner, Maurita Holland, had spotted in the backyard creek that morning.

He’s also still enjoying memories of a recent expedition to Antarctica, a skiing trip to Winter Park, Colorado, and a road trip to Florida.

And he looks forward to more travels this summer, when Holland becomes president of the Rotary Club of Ann Arbor and he tags along with her to Rotary’s international convention in Lisbon.

Clearly, retirement suits Chard, who for 38 years was a lawyer in Ann Arbor before he retired from his private practice in real estate law in 2010.

“I was ready to be done, and didn’t try to stretch it beyond that period so that I could potentially get grumpy about continuing to work,” he says. “I had practiced law in this town 38 years, and that was enough.”

Chard has been one of Ann Arbor’s outstanding lawyers for decades, says his close friend, attorney James Cameron, who has faced Chard in the courtroom several times.

“On my first case with Roger, I made the huge mistake of thinking that Roger would be at a disadvantage because of his visual deficit,” says Cameron. “Was I ever wrong. Roger is one of the most well prepared, informed and competitive opponents I have ever faced.”

Attorney Charles Borgsdorf recalls the time he and Chard competed in a foul shooting contest. They put a portable radio behind the backboard so Chard could hear where the basket was. Chard won.

“My promising hoop career came to an ignominious end,” says Borgsdorf.

Chard co-wrote a book on landlord and tenant law that Borgsdorf calls the “indispensable treatise” on the subject. Chard, however, will not be writing a memoir because he doesn’t think a book about an attorney who was blind all his life would be very interesting.

Even if he’s overcome so much?

“I’ve always said that if I had overcome being blind, I would see,” he says.

And then he smiles.

 “Imperturbable”

Chard does that a lot. In fact, imperturbable is one of the adjectives Holland uses to describe him. “And he’s bright, he’s funny, he’s musical,” said Holland. “He’s just very calm and easy to be with. And he’s fun. And also serious.”

Chard, who’ll turn 65 in July, lives with Holland in an immaculate, clutter-free home in northwest Ann Arbor. They live directly across the street from a bus stop, which is a bit unusual in a residential neighborhood and one of the reasons they bought the house.

“I’ve been trying to get the driver to pull into the driveway for years,” he jokes.

He and Holland have been together since 2005, but they’ve known each other for about 40 years, ever since she began to accompany him — a baritone — on the piano. They performed an impromptu concert on the ship returning from their Antarctica trip.

“Fortunately, the seas were relatively calm that night,” said Chard, who sang for 15 years with the Ann Arbor Cantata Singers, and with the Men’s Glee Club at Michigan State. “It would have been difficult, but there are times I wish I had pushed the music part of my career more than I did. But I’ve sung a lot for someone who had a fulltime day job doing something very different.”

In fact, he’s sung all over Michigan, in several other states, and at the National Archives in Washington D.C. He has soloed, sung with a variety of orchestras, and other singers and performers, including the late Dave Brubeck.

Ann Arbor attorney Deborah Weber says Chard is the most exceptional person she’s ever met.

“How many sighted people do you know who consistently made quiet, thoughtful and humorous courtroom arguments that annihilated opponent’s claims during the day, gave flawless classical vocal performances in the evenings or on weekends, and spent vacations skiing down the mountains in Colorado or exploring the grandeur of Antarctica?” she asks.

The Lansing native was the only child of a stay-at-home mother and the musical director at the residential Michigan School for the Blind, which Chard attended in grades K-12, along with some classes at a public high school.

He then went on to Michigan State University. He was an active debating participant in high school and college, winning the Michigan State high school debate championship in 1965, many national tournaments in college, and the National College Student Speaker of the Year in 1969.

After MSU, Chard entered the University of Michigan Law School, where he relied on books on tape, and people reading to him and taping things for him.

“It was hard work,” he says of law school, “but it was certainly doable. I was the only blind student at the law school during those three years, and they weren’t entirely sure how to deal with me.”

For his first 10 years out of law school, Chard worked for the Washtenaw County Legal Aid Society, which expanded to four counties and became Legal Services of Southeastern Michigan.

He started as a staff attorney there and by the time he left in 1983 to go into private practice, he was the executive director.

For the first 15 years of his practice, he handled things mostly the way he got through law school — using a Braille writer (which is far too noisy for courtroom use) or a slate and stylus, which is a smaller and quieter, but slower device. Many blind people in recent years have grown up with audio technology.

“I use plenty of that, but I’ve always thought that Braille has its value,” he says. “Braille has a lot of advantages, in my opinion, not the least of which is that it teaches you to spell. You don’t learn how to spell by listening to something. So I always felt pleased that I was taught Braille early on, and I continue to use it and always will use it.”

“I had zillions of Braille notes around my desk and in my office,” he recalls. “I had to deal with scheduling readers to come in … In the late 80’s, when I was able to use a computer, it was an astonishing difference.”

The fact that his parents made him learn to type in second grade was suddenly a very good thing.

His computer has software that converts virtually everything that comes to the screen to speech, and he can adjust pitch, speed, and volume.

And he can know what he’s typing when he’s typing it, while before he might forget the last thing he’d typed when he stopped for a moment to think about what to write next.

He says it’s “incredible” to be able to use equipment that now talks to him and echoes his key strokes so he can hear what he’s typing, read it back, and proofread his own material.

One of the other huge helps is the optical character recognition scanner that converts print to speech.

When he bought his first one in 1987, he felt like a kid on Christmas morning because for the first time, he could read his mail. He didn’t need someone in the office to read a document to him.

“I could pick up a piece of paper, put it on this lens that’s like a copy machine, push a button, and it would scan it and convert it to speech,” says Chard, whose reading speed is about 425 words per minute. “These are all things I never dreamed would happen in my lifetime. I never thought I’d be able to pick up a book or piece of paper and read it by myself.”

People have a hard time picturing what it would be like to be blind, he says. In the late 70’s, he sued the Ann Arbor Vic Tanny Health Club because it wouldn’t sell a membership to his blind client. The club insisted “common sense tells us it wouldn’t be safe.” The case ended up in the Court of Appeals after a visiting judge agreed it wouldn’t be safe.

“I said to the appellate judges that I knew it was difficult for people in Vic Tanny’s position to envision how it would be for a blind person to operate in their club. “I said, `I know it’s difficult for you, the judges, to picture how it is that I practice law. But the flip side is the same. I wouldn’t know how to go about practicing law very well if I suddenly could see. I know how I do things and you know how you do things.’”

The Court of Appeals decided with Chard.

“People just make so many assumptions about what you must not be able to do simply because you can’t see,” he says. “All that’s going on there is that they never have had to think about different ways of doing things.”

Theein lies a lot of the problem, he says.

“They assume that the person with a disability also doesn’t think about how to adapt, about how to do something, despite the disability,” he says.  “It’s not as if I pretend that not seeing is of no
consequence. Clearly, there are major differences between what I am able to do and what a sighted person is able to do or experience.”

One of Chard’s biggest regrets about not seeing is that he never could sight read music.

“But for everybody, getting through life is a series of perpetual work-arounds, trying to deal with whatever it is you have to deal with,” he says.

He likes to travel, and has been doing a lot of it since retiring.

This year, he enjoyed an eight-day skiing trip in Winter Park, Colorado, where he skis through the National Sports Center for the Disabled. He skis with a guide who is skiing behind him, calling turn commands. If a slope is open enough, and sparsely populated, he takes off on his own.

“I like to ski on my own entirely without commands if I can do it,” he said. “Then if I start getting to the side or something, the guide will get me get back on track.”

Chard, winner of the NSCD’s Athlete of the Year Award in 2004, skis the “black” slopes, which are among the most difficult.

“It is quite thrilling because it’s the kind of freedom and speed that I never really expected to experience,” says Chard, who started skiing in his early 40’s and plans to get back on his tandem bike soon.

As a kid, he played basketball and adaptive baseball at the School for the Blind.

“I got in a batting cage once and was hitting against a pitching machine until the proprietor realized I couldn’t see,” he said, laughing at the memory. “He put a stop to it.”

These days, in addition to traveling, going up north, attending U-M wrestling and women’s softball games, and skiing, he enjoys spending his days reading and practicing and performing music.

He also is proud of his two grown sons, Brendan, a web designer who lives in Ann Arbor, owns The Modern Firm, LLC, and works with small law firms across the country, and Devin, a police officer in Las Vegas.

Chard has never been bitter about his disability (his father wouldn’t have allowed it, he says) and he believes that being blind from birth is an advantage in many ways compared with those who lose sight later in life.

“You would have experienced color, you would have experienced the way the world looks, as opposed to dealing with that all from a tactile or auditory sense,” he says. “But in terms of getting along and making your way through life, the person who’s been blind from the start doesn’t have this wrenching change to deal with. It’s what you know right from the start. You know there are differences between you and a sighted person, but you don’t think of it as especially abnormal, because it’s the only thing you know.”

Though he has no concept of color, Chard imagines his favorite would be red.

“I’ve heard it’s bright and bold,” he says.

And then he smiles again.

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