Every day, Michael Baillif turns darkness into light—and he has devoted his life to helping others do the same. It happened when he was 13 or 14, through a detached retina, he recalls. First one eye, then the other. “It was a pretty good thing for me,” he reflects with regard to the timing of the event, “because I was just switching to high school and young enough to be able to adapt to it. It’s much more difficult for people who lose their vision midway in their career.”
Ironically, Baillif credits the loss of his vision for his success. “I wasn’t a good student before I lost my vision,” the Yale Law School graduate observes. “I had wanted to be a cross-country truck driver or a pro baseball player. Losing my vision, I had to focus on using my brain.” And from that day forward, his intellect took priority.
At 43, Baillif has become a principal in Ernst & Young LLP (EY), and serves as an associate general counsel for the company. Tax law is his specialty, and he handles regulatory compliance matters, contractual and settlement negotiations with clients, and litigation when necessary.
“A lot of what I do,” he explains, “involves negotiations—not to win for the sake of winning, but for both parties to profit. I have no desire to simply beat someone, which I think is a strength. My goal is to prevent things from getting to trial, if at all possible.”
Being blind, Baillif emphasizes, “is not terribly limiting.” Rather, he describes it simply as an inconvenience. “I can do anything any other attorney can do, as quickly and easily as they can.”
He credits part of this to his work with a full-time reader, to whom he dictates his briefs and other written material. He shares that working with a reader is more efficient, though he also has a computer that provides voice output. Another useful tool is his white cane. “It allows you to cue in the various clues around you,” he explains, “like landmarks on a sidewalk.”
He adds, “You figure out alternative ways of getting things done,” he adds, offering the tricks he uses to compensate for his loss of vision. “You have all the same skills that you had before. You simply pay more attention to other senses, like listening more carefully to what’s going on around you.”
Baillif is a powerful advocate of independence and self-sufficiency for the blind. His leadership role goes back to his student days, when he became president of the National Association of Blind Students (formerly called the National Federation of the Blind, Student Division).
As an advocate for the blind, Baillif has written a number of thoughtful essays in publications like the National Federation of the Blind’s Braille Monitor. Among other things, he has written about experiences he has had with a New York cab driver, a war club salesman in Africa, and climbing the roof of his family home.
Baillif refuses to be defined by his blindness. “My biggest issues are not blindness-related,” he asserts. “Mine are the same as everyone else.”
Among Baillif’s achievements was his selection for a Watson Fellowship during his senior year at Claremont McKenna College in Los Angeles. This fellowship allows students to go overseas for nine months, and requires them to create and complete a research project. Baillif went to London and Stockholm, and compared the socioeconomic conditions of blind persons there with that of the U.S.
“I felt that the U.S. had the greatest range,” he recalls. “Many blind people were worse off than in the other countries, but blind people had more opportunity to make it here. In the U.K., blind people were much better taken care of, but this was destructive of them reaching their potential.”
For example, he discussed what it was like to cross the street in the U.K. “I couldn’t be left alone on street corners,” he observed. “It was nice on one hand, but it eventually took an incredible toll on my selfconfidence. When I became blind, I needed to get it together, to pay attention and to be independent, and I would not have done that in the U.K. I probably would’ve worked in a sheltered workshop.”
In another of his essays, he described the “bleeping nuisance” posed by the audio signal at many street corners in the U.K., which are meant to help the blind cross the street. In his investigation, he found that measures meant to help blind people actually were preventing them from participating fully and equally with sighted persons. “Audible signals perpetuate the myth that the blind are helpless,” he wrote. Baillif also explained that the noise made by the audible signals actually obscures the sound of traffic, which tells pedestrians whether crossing the street is safe or dangerous.
“So what if I’m blind?” he argues. “I would not have had the richness of experience I’ve had as a blind person if my early life as a sighted person had continued uninterrupted. I’m not saying that it’s better to be blind than it is to be sighted, but for me, losing my vision was a great catalyst for good things that otherwise likely would not have happened in my life.”
He chose to specialize in tax law after law school, because he realized his job opportunities would be greater. He has since become a respected tax expert; in addition to his essays, his content often appears in professional publications like the American Bar Association’s The Tax Lawyer.
Today, he is a supremely happy and gifted attorney with a wife and two children, aged five and three. “I feel very lucky here at EY,” he reflects. “One of EY’s global priorities is inclusiveness. It recognizes that everyone has different issues and needs, and—as a firm and a workplace—it allows people to work to the best of their abilities. It’s wonderful to be a part of an environment where differences are our strength.”
Meanwhile, he will continue to advocate for the blind. As he once stated in a speech, “I intend to be involved . . . for a long while to come. We have much too much to say, and too much to do, and there is too much fun to be had to allow anyone else to do it for us.” DB
Tom Calarco is a freelance writer and historian of the Underground Railroad. He lives in Orlando, Fla.
From the March/April 2010 issue of Diversity & The Bar®