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Jewell Cardwell: Blind law student has life in focus

By Jewell Cardwell
Beacon Journal columnist

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Robert Campbell, who is legally blind, stands in the courtroom classroom at University of Akron Law School. He will soon graduate from the school where he was managing editor of the Akron Law Review. (Paul Tople/Akron Beacon Journal)

Seeing is believing.

And the reverse — believing is seeing — also is true.

You need only learn of 25-year-old Robert Dewayne Campbell, who is legally blind, to know the wisdom of the latter.

For Campbell’s firm focus on carving out a successful life for himself — a way out of the darkness, so to speak — has been unimpeachable.

His impossible-to-resist, Chicken-Soup-for-the-Soul story should give anyone residing in an “I can’t” world the emotional tools to make a new plan.

Campbell certainly did.

The handsome, clean-cut Campbell with a white cane is poised to graduate Thursday from the University of Akron Law School. And in the top 20 percent of his class (of about 200 full- and part-time students) no less.

The seed for a career in law — although he didn’t know it then — was planted around the same time, at age 16, that doctors declared him legally blind.

His blindness was caused by retinitis pigmentosa, a disease of the eye that’s damaging to the retina, affecting about one in 4,000 people in the U.S.

“It was like one day I could see and the next I couldn’t,” Campbell recalled. “It started with my night vision. I went from never wearing glasses to wearing thicker and thicker glasses ... By the time I was in 11th grade, I was unable to read from the printed text.”

Ironically, he’s still able to see shadows, he said.

The Cleveland City School Board didn’t know what to do with him, he said.

“Having a blind student seemed to be all new to them,” Campbell said. “It was new to my parents and to me!”

So, the school board’s answer, he said, was to put him in special education classes at Martin Luther King High School.

“I was there half of a semester,” Campbell said. “I knew I didn’t belong there. So, I kept telling my parents to tell them to take me out.”

Campbell said it actually took him becoming his own advocate to get the needle moving in the right direction. He asked his parents to float the idea of filing a lawsuit. Not surprisingly, things then moved pretty quickly.

Campbell — who was mainstreamed with the other students, like he was before the diagnosis — soared academically, making National Honor Society and graduating fourth in a class of 150.

Asked why he didn’t just drop out, he journeyed back in time for the answer.

“Yes it was a very devastating time. Going from having my sight one day and not the next. Of course, I was depressed,” he said. “But what kept me going was me asking myself ‘So, what are my options?’ I didn’t want to be placed in a stereotypical box most blind people are placed in, told what I could and could not do. I didn’t like those options. I wanted more for myself. That meant I had to work hard. And, in the end, I think staying busy helped me avoid depression.”

Along the way, Campbell amassed quite a few advocates.

“I had teachers my last year of high school tell me because of how I fought for myself that I should become a lawyer,” he said.

Clearly, the idea took hold.

Trial team

During his undergraduate years at Bowling Green State University — where he was on full scholarship the first two years, majoring in political science — Campbell was a member of the mock trial team, winning a slew of awards as best attorney in national competitions.

In fact, he was so successful, he easily became captain and team leader of the school’s nationally ranked mock trial team.

That’s when Campbell — who graduated cum laude — really visualized himself practicing law.

“I loved litigating cases,” he said. “The excitement of arguing and winning was most rewarding for me.”

Elizabeth A. Reilly, interim dean of the University of Akron School of Law, taught Campbell in his first year in law school and kept in touch with him after that. She said she often saw him waiting for a cab and he was always smiling and often humming a song.

“My favorite times were when he sought me out in my office to talk about something he was learning or wanted to learn and write about,” she said. “He is so intellectually curious, animated and passionate. He willingly shared his knowledge and ideas with me.”

Campbell knows Braille but hardly ever uses it, except on elevators or finding the right classroom door. For study and note taking, he relies on his laptop and JAWS (Jobs Access With Speech, which is a computer screen reader program that allows visually impaired users to read the screen by translating text-to-speech or by a Braille display). And he’s able to scan his textbooks as Word documents.

Campbell distinguished himself by becoming managing editor of Akron Law Review the past year.

“I was the one responsible for selecting the articles to be published and to oversee the editorial process,” he said. “It was a lot of work but I learned a lot in the process.”

Reilly was proud of Campbell for making the law review and being chosen as editor.

“He sets high goals for himself, and is determined and perseveres,” she wrote.

Litigation love

Academically active in other areas, Campbell also served as a law clerk in the City of Barberton’s Prosecutor’s Office, litigating criminal misdemeanor cases.

Campbell — who will begin today what he calls an intensive 10-week study in preparation for taking the Bar exam in February — said his ideal job would be “personal injury work or criminal defense.”

“I’m a trial attorney at heart,” he passionately declared.

So, what is the challenge for someone who is visually impaired?

“Preparation. Preparation,” came the answer.

What separates him from other law-school students?

“I would have to say it is my memory,” he said thoughtfully. “That’s my biggest asset ... I need only to go into a building once and I will remember the layout.”

Like most law school students, Campbell — although he’s on partial scholarship — will graduate with a boat-load of loans. “That’s why I need a job. And fast!” he said.

Campbell commutes to school and work via Greyhound. He also relies on taxicabs. After being picked up late for class so many times, Campbell said he was forced to file a complaint — “while still remaining really pleasant” — with the cab company, which greatly improved the situation.

Asked why he still wears eyeglasses given the severity of his visual impairment, Campbell replied, “It helps me to focus ... If I didn’t my eyes would wander.”

Staying focused is what Campbell is all about.

“Robert is more than unassuming and appreciative,” Reilly said. “Beyond patience, Robert has serenity. He is more than determined. Beyond perseverance, he has courage. He is strongly grounded in reality, but he shares joy. Robert has wisdom.

“Robert is someone I feel privileged to know, not because of what he has accomplished, but because of what he is. In a world where so many are takers, Robert Campbell is a giver.”

Jewell Cardwell can be reached at 330-996-3567 or jcardwell@thebeaconjournal.com.



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