On July 14, Isaac Lidsky, 28, will begin a new job, working as a law clerk in the U.S. Supreme Court. There have been clerks working for the justices for more than a century, but Lidsky will be making history. He will be the first blind law clerk to take on a job that requires a lot of reading. But he doesn't see that as a problem.
"The assistive technology is such that my blindness doesn't slow me down," Lidsky says. "I'm able to do my job productively, so for me it's not an issue."
In his townhouse on Capitol Hill, Lidsky catches up on the latest news from the Supreme Court on the Internet with help from a reading machine.
Lidsky wasn't born visually impaired. He lost his vision gradually during his teens. "I was 13 when I was diagnosed with a retinal degenerative disease called retinitis pigmentosa," he says. "Two of my three older sisters also have the condition. At the time I didn't realize that I saw any worse than my peers. In retrospect, I clearly did. I progressively lost vision between then and age 23 or 24."
Despite the fact that he was going blind, Lidsky graduated from Harvard University and Harvard Law School.
"It was a challenge to adapt to vision loss while trying to keep up with studies," he recalls. "I had tremendous support from Harvard University both in college and law school. They were able to get me cane training, get me meaningful access to my courses and notes and textbooks. Unfortunately, that is not always the case for folks with visual disability. And that is a tremendous problem."
Prior to law school, Lidsky had another career, following in the footsteps of his older sisters. "They dabbled in acting as a hobby growing up in Miami, and by the time I was born, my mom was already a pro in the business," he says. "I did a diaper commercial when I was six weeks old, and probably somewhere between 100 and 150 commercials growing up."
In 1993 he was cast in a television sitcom, Saved by the Bell: The New Class, which took him to Los Angeles for a couple of years. Lidsky says he feels "blessed" to have had the experience, which he notes is "not the average experience for a 13, 14 year-old kid."
And he enjoyed the work, acting and putting the show together, which was filmed in front of a live studio audience. It was great preparation for law, especially trial law. And Lidsky always knew he wanted to be a lawyer, just like his dad.
"As I was growing up, as a kid, I used to go to work with him, go to his office, go to court and learn about the law," Lidsky recalls. "Growing up with a role model like my father, it was crystal clear to me that I wanted to go to law school and wanted to learn to think like he did."
After graduating from Harvard Law School, Lidsky served as a clerk for a federal circuit court judge for one year.
His upcoming clerkship in the U.S. Supreme Court is something he has thought about for a long time, thanks to his father. "He explained to me that folks who are relatively fresh out of law school can go and contribute to this institution and clerk for the court. And I was hooked. I knew it was something I wanted to do."
Supreme Court law clerks review hundreds of petitions, write memos and do rough drafts of decisions.
Isaac Lidsky says he expects to learn a lot during the year ahead. "It's a backstage pass to what I think is the most remarkable institution in our democracy. It will be incredible to be behind the scenes, see how things work and most importantly contribute."
But he has another passion as well, one that grew out of his vision loss. "What turned this experience of vision loss into a tremendous positive for me in my life was my family's commitment to the mission of funding the development of treatments and cures," he says.
Following their example, he founded an organization called Hope for Vision with friends and family. "And we've been able to raise millions of dollars. Over 98 percent of what we raise goes directly to fund research."
The young lawyer is excited about the progress that has been made already in that research. "We've seen success in human clinical trials with gene therapies and biotech chip implantations, artificial retina. We've seen vision restored."
Isaac Lidsky says the question is not if we will solve the problem of blinding disease, but when.