Matt, you represented the U.S. in goalball at the 16th Summer Paralympic Games held in Tokyo this year. Please describe for us this fast-paced sport.
Goalball is the most unique Paralympic sport. I always tell people not to feel bad for not knowing what it is because it’s the only Paralympic sport not adapted from an able-bodied counterpart (e.g., wheelchair basketball or wheelchair rugby). The game was created in the 1940s by a couple of European doctors as a means of rehabilitating blinded WWII veterans returning from the war. They needed a way to help these traumatically blinded young men relearn basic skills like proprioception and basic physical orientation and mobility. Not to mention these doctors knew that these young men could really benefit from some sort of competitive outlet. Goalball evolved from there and became a part of the Paralympics in 1976.
The game itself is pretty simple. The court is 30 by 60 feet. All of the lines are tactile – tape with string underneath so the players can feel them. There are three players on either end, all wearing blacked out goggles and eye patches that are taped down so that no one can have a visual advantage. The spectrum of visual ability among competitors is pretty broad off the court; but on the court, it is a level playing field. The ball has bells inside, is the size of a basketball, and weighs about three pounds. There is a goal on either end of the court that spans the entire 30-foot width. Each team is positioned in front of their goal and uses their ears to track the ball and bodies to defend the net. The ball is thrown back and forth between the two teams, but it must touch the ground when thrown, so it is rolling, bouncing or skipping down the court. The players throw with something like a bowling release with a discus spin. On the men’s side internationally, that ball is often traveling around 50 miles per hour, so it’s a very fast game. I encourage people to check it out on YouTube.
The 2021 NDEAM theme – “America’s Recovery: Powered by Inclusion” – reflects the need for people with disabilities to have full access to employment and community involvement during the national recovery from COVID-19. How did the pandemic change the way you approached this year’s Paralympic Games compared to your experience in 2016?
Things were very different this year for sure. Almost all the tournaments we would usually be able to compete in leading into the games were canceled, so we really didn’t get to see much of our competition for the last few years. We had to take even more precautions than usual to protect our health as well. Usually, training is strength, cardio, skills, and mental preparation. But this year we also had to add in the myriad COVID protocols and restrictions, and that added a whole other mental angle knowing that even heading to Tokyo we could be derailed by a positive test. Fortunately, we did all stay healthy and no one tested positive. The village restrictions and lack of fans was also very different from the normal Paralympic experience. The thrill of representing one’s country on the biggest stage is always beyond exciting but being in the Tokyo bubble without the fans sometimes required a little bit more internal focus to remember where you were and what you were doing.
It was an amazing honor to represent the USA this year for a second time at the Paralympics. With the games being postponed, maybe canceled, with so much turmoil around the world, these games were unique. Those of us who did get to compete came away so grateful for the welcoming generosity of the Japanese people, and for the incredible efforts made by the staff and volunteers of the Tokyo Games.
I am also beyond grateful for the constant and extremely generous support of my wife to support me through life as a first-year associate, a Paralympian, and new dad. Sidley has supported me every step of the way as well with the unique flexibility requests that come with Paralympic training and competition and the inherent challenges of accommodating someone who is blind in a demanding workplace.
Pivoting to your professional life, what attracted you to the practice of law and what aspect of your practice do you enjoy the most?
I feel so blessed and privileged to be at a place like Sidley to begin my legal career. I have always thought I might enjoy the legal field. Particularly as someone who is blind, which most will perceive as a disadvantage, pursuing education and finding a field where you can maximize your abilities is so important. I have always tried to focus on the opportunities afforded to me by my unique path through life as a result of being blind.
I love the practice of law for the challenges presented every day. In law, there’s something similar to the excitement and reward we find in sports. I hope to continue doing mostly litigation work because I love that sense of camaraderie and teamwork that comes with representing a client and finding a legal solution to their very real problem. And just like in sport, I like starting a challenging profession at the bottom, knowing so little but with the opportunity to gain valuable skills and experience.
Tell us about a professional goal you are proud of achieving, and what (or who) inspired you to go for it.
One of the things I have loved so far about my time at Sidley is the great pro bono work that the firm encourages and facilitates. I am particularly proud of the four appellate briefs, two of which were before the Supreme Court, that I had a small part in authoring this year. One was an appeal for compassionate release for a disabled prisoner on which the DC Circuit sided with us and remanded the case back to the district court. The others were all First Amendment matters, including an emergency appeal by a death row inmate who was being forbidden from having his pastor in the death chamber as he was executed. The tremendous lawyers at Sidley and my mentors at the firm have been so generous with their time and expertise in helping guide me as an advocate. And having these experiences on substantive pro bono issues that really matter and move the needle is a tremendous blessing for everyone at this firm.
NDEAM is a time to celebrate the many and varied contributions of America's workers with disabilities. As a person who is visually impaired, how has the ADA helped you and others with disabilities to thrive?
I am truly fortunate to be blind and starting my legal career at this time in history and in such an accommodating society. Organizations and their leaders are motivated now more than ever before to recognize and facilitate the immense capabilities of people with disabilities. The population of individuals with disabilities is a huge untapped resource in numbers alone. And organizations are also more aware that the challenges intrinsic to disability can produce individuals with unique perspectives, sharpened skills, and indomitable spirits. Society has come to understand that these individuals can bring so much to a team and the workplace because of their disabilities. The ADA was a huge turning point for helping to codify the notion that as a society we not only want to advance the cause of disability, but also have seen fit to require it. There were many trailblazers before the ADA, but I am so grateful that their efforts led to its adoption so I can focus more on becoming a good lawyer and less on the fact that I happen to be blind while doing it.
What is it like for someone who is visually impaired to practice law – are there tools or technologies that you use to do your job?
Yes, definitely. There’s very little that I’m not able to do with the aid of technology. I have special screen reading software on my computer that turns the on-screen information into auditory output. That makes the endless hours of Westlaw scrolling or document reviewing much less exhausting for me compared to my peers, whose eyes must get very tired. My phone also has a screen reading program so that most of its functionality is usable as well. I have some more unique tools such as a small mobile braille computer I can use to take notes or connect to my computer or phone to serve as a braille screen for reading documents. And I have a braille printer so I can have a hard copy of documents in braille if needed. And when all these tools fail and I do need a little extra assistance to get the job done, I am always grateful to the wonderful FAS team.