Blindness doesn't hold back assistant public defender
By JENNIFER LEARN-ANDES, Times Leader
Oct. 28, 2017
WILKES-BARRE, Pa. (AP) — Luzerne County Assistant Public Defender Steph Fernandes has come to expect personal questions from her juvenile clients when they realize she is blind.
The 28-year-old Kingston resident assures their often embarrassed parents she is not offended by such probing because demystifying her life shows others a blind person can thrive independently.
"Most people do not have blind friends, co-workers, professors or teachers. We're still few and far between in workplaces," said Fernandes, who is slated to receive an award from the Greater Wilkes-Barre Association for the Blind.
County Chief Public Defender Steven Greenwald said he and his staff initially were on guard when Fernandes started as a staff attorney in April 2015 because they wanted her to feel supported. Her self-deprecating humor about her blindness and determination to be treated the same as everyone else immediately put everyone at ease.
Greenwald said Fernandes often greets him as he approaches, before he says a word, and she refuses to divulge how she knows it is him.
"I really don't even consider her blindness because it doesn't play a role in her work on a day-to-day basis," Greenwald said. "We're not in any position where we need to make accommodations for her in any way. She's like every other lawyer here."
An Ohio native, Fernandes says humor dispels awkwardness some people feel encountering a blind person for the first time. For example, she bemoans a perception she would grope someone's facial features to register their identity.
"I really don't want to touch people's faces," she said, laughing.
Fernandes said her only on-the-job request was for Braille on courtroom doors because the courthouse on River Street in Wilkes-Barre has a circular layout. She refuses to walk around the building counting steps because she'd have to brush off conversations with passersby to focus on numbers.
She compiles notes on her cases by typing Braille into a small device that includes a display for her to search and read the data as needed. Her laptop also is equipped with software that reads aloud legal information.
Buses get her to and from work, and she tags along with friends to the grocery store. A cellphone app identifies paper currency so Fernandez can fold it different ways for future recognition. In her spare time, she plays the flute and is a cantor at her church.
"I live by myself, and I do my own cooking. What I lack in skill, I make up for in attempt," she said.
A classmate at Boston College marveled at Fernandes' adaptability in a 2013 online video by the National Braille Press, pointing to Braille labels she made to identify the buttons on the microwave, washer and dryer.
Fernandes relied on her Braille note taker in classes at Boston College and Ohio State University's Moritz College of Law.
As a child, Fernandes learned Braille pressing her fingers on the pages of story books while her mother read accompanying text.
Her blindness was not a shock because her older brother also can't see. She credits her parents for encouraging her to adapt and pursue her goals.
In high school, she was among several valedictorians and also played the violin, sang in the choir and performed with the marching band.
She describes her work in the public defender's office as a "dream job" because she wanted to use her education to serve and inspire others, particularly youth. Fernandes represented adults for several months before switching to an open position in the juvenile division.
The award and resulting exposure should encourage more employers to hire people who are blind, she said.
"There are a huge amount of blind people with talent not being used. A lot of my clients say they really appreciate what I'm doing for them and that I make them want to tackle the obstacles they're facing."
County Manager C. David Pedri said Fernandes is a "great attorney, county employee and person."
"The fact that she is also visually impaired proves that she is also driven and dedicated," he said.
Information from: Times Leader, http://www.timesleader.com