Blindness is such a small incidence group that there are very few true experts on blindness. Blindness affects only ½ of 1% of the US population. Also, persons with severe visual loss account for less than 2% of the population.
The blindness expert witness brings a dimension of experience that can be invaluable to a plaintiff or defendant in the damages phase of a medical malpractice suit. In my 14 years of experience as an expert witness I have only recently come up against one other blindness expert. Although there are a few others out there. In cases involving loss of wages and earning capacity, most attorneys retain a Certified Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor (CRC) to assist them with their case. At face value this is a good strategy. However, this is only good if the person has extensive experience working with persons who are blind. Otherwise, the damages phase of the case can fall apart quickly. Most experts have extensive experience serving persons with other disabilities but have very little experience serving persons who are blind.
What Makes Blindness Cases So Unique?
Consider the following.
1. The field of Vocational Rehabilitation professionals is clearly divided into two categories. One category consists of all disabilities other than blindness. The other category is made up of those that work specifically and entirelywith persons who are blind. Most states either have a separate Commission for the Blind, a Bureau of the Blind, a Division for the Blind, or at least an Office or Department of Services for the Blind. All other disabilities are lumped into another very large generic program with general caseloads. An astute attorney would not seek an expert who serves a generic disability population in a generic program serving all disabilities.
2. The education and professional training is different, the technology is different, the professional organizations are different, service providers and vendors are different, the certifying bodies are separate as are the consumer organizations. Having an indepth knowledge or blindness issues can only come from involvement is these types of organizations.
3. The Social Security Administration has unique rules about blindness. This includes the earning limits which are much higher for a person who a blind. They recognize the unique challenges, obstacles, and abilities of persons who are blind.
4. Persons who are blind are able to claim an additional dependent on their income taxes because they are blind. One might ask, out of all the disabilities, why is it that only persons who are blind can claim an additional dependent on their income taxes?
5. The challenges and obstacles facing a blind person are so unique that it requires specialists to meet their independent living and vocational needs. Training methodology is so specialized that only someone with extensive experience will understand the subtle nuances. This becomes obvious when a “so called” expert makes references in reports using the wrong terminology. He may also recommend services, equipment or assistive technology that is inappropriate, obsolete, redundant, or no longer available. Advances in technology come rapidly so experts need to engaged and up-to-date at all times.
What Qualifications Should an Attorney look for in a Blindness Expert Witness?
1. Experts should have a Master’s Degree or higher in a blindness related field.
2. They should have extensive experience serving the blindness population. Having worked extensively with persons who are blind, the expert on blindness understands the culture and nuances associated with this population.
3. A supervisor who has had hands on experience as well as experience supervising the various professionals is critical in your search. I would recommend someone who has experience supervising those that work with blind persons of all ages. This will give them the depth of knowledge they need. This could include Blind Children Specialists, Transition Counselors, Vocational Rehabilitation Counselors, Assistive Technology Specialists, Orientation & Mobility Specialists, Rehabilitation Teachers, Diabetes Educators, Vision Rehabilitation Therapists, Low Vision Specialists, Deaf-Blind Specialists, Independent Living Caseworkers and/or those working with older blind persons.
4. Certification by an accreditation body for blindness professionals such as the Academy for Certification of Vision Rehabilitation and Education Professionals (ACVREP) . They provide professional certification in the disciplines of low vision therapy (LVT), orientation and mobility (COMS). They also cover vision rehabilitation therapy (VRT). Being a Certified Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor (CRC) is good only if it’s coupled with expensive experience serving the blindness population. This is compared to a CRC who serves all disabilities including persons who are visually impaired.
5. Membership in the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired (AER). This is the only professional organization that serves blindness professionals exclusively.
The Role of the Expert Witness on Blindness:
During the discovery phase, the plaintiff’s attorney can call on the blindness expert do a comprehensive evaluation on the impact that blindness has had on all aspects of the person’s life. They should be able to provide expert opinions and recommendations. They should also assist a life care planner in developing a life care plan tailored to the unique individual needs of the plaintiff.
If representing the defense, the expert can assist the defense attorney in drafting relevant and specific questions to ask the plaintiff about how blindness has affected them. The expert should also be able to challenge the validity of an inaccurate expert report or life care plan.
If the case goes to trial, the expert’s role is to educate the jury about the abilities, limitations, and resources available to persons who are blind. The expert should render a professional opinion on the impact that blindness has had on the individual’s life. This needs to be based on factual information verses emotion.
Regardless of whether I am retained by an attorney for the defendant or the plaintiff, my ability to render impartial opinions depends on access to all appropriate medical, educational, vocational and rehabilitation records. The expert can assist the attorney in identifying the types of records needed. They should also have information on the various blindness agencies or organizations that might have provided services to the client.