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December 22, 2002

Handicap can't stop Annapolis lawyer

From: Annapolis Capital, MD - 22 Dec 2002

By BRIAN M. SCHLETER, Staff Writer

Talking might as well be a job requirement for trial lawyers. After all, they need to plead with judges, make passionate arguments before juries and console their clients.

India Ochs, who can't communicate without using sign language or a computer that "speaks" what she writes, might have considered that a reason to abandon her lifelong dream.

But on Wednesday, she stood in the mahogany-paneled Court of Appeals in Annapolis, raised her right hand and took the oath of admission to the Maryland bar.

When asked how she felt after the ceremony, she smiled and wrote "Happiness, relief and pride, all combined" on a legal pad she carries with her.

She was born with a rare neuromuscular condition that precludes her from speaking clearly, yet from the time she started grade school, Ms. Ochs, 27, wanted to be a lawyer.

"Law was and always will be the profession I always knew was in my blood," she said through e-mail. "It's the love of debate, the competitiveness. I enjoy long days and the satisfaction of helping others."

Getting there wasn't always easy. As a child, Ms. Ochs was picked on because she was different. She had to write out whatever she wanted to say, and until she learned to write well, communicating was frustrating.

It wasn't until she was a senior in high school that she began using computers that could speak what she'd type. She debuted one program before a state Senate committee, where she regularly testified on student issues.

Technological advances have helped, but communicating by computer can still be frustrating, she said.

"Most specialized computers or systems are geared towards those with a simple vocabulary so that they can communicate normal things, and not the kind of vocabulary or actions which I always had," she said.

She was accepted to the University of North Carolina at Greensboro where she double-majored in political science and history -- and graduated in three years.

Ms. Ochs was also active in campus politics, and served as delegation chairman of the North Carolina Student Legislature. She even was named the organization's Best Speaker in the House of Representatives.

To enlighten others about people with disabilities she formed a campus Disabled Student Awareness Foundation.

After earning a master's degree in public affairs, she headed to the College of Law at Syracuse University.

Fellow student and friend Beth Williams remembers being pulled aside by professors during mock trials who commented that Ms. Ochs' condition would keep her from being successful as a litigator.

Don't hold your breath, Ms. Williams told them.

"She's a very eloquent speaker. She can get her ideas across... It's more what you have to say than how you say it," she said.

Ms. Ochs so inspired her peers that they elected her president of the class of 2002 at Syracuse. She also won the United States Law Week Award and another award for earning the high A in her trial practice class.

"No matter how many times I walk into a courtroom, I still get that initial rush of excitement inside of me," she said. "My heart is that of an orator and this proved that I can thrive within a courtroom setting."

Retired Circuit Court Judge Eugene M. Lerner, who spent 20 years on the bench, said he's held trials with hearing-impaired witnesses and defendants who required a sign language interpreter, but never an attorney.

Her condition shouldn't affect her ability to get the job done in court, he said.

"If she managed to get through Syracuse University law school, certainly she'll be able to represent her clients," he said.

In August Ms. Ochs signed up for a year-long commitment to AmeriCorps, where she created a nonprofit agency in Baltimore called "Common Senses." It's dedicated to creating programs that allow deaf and blind youths to interact with other kids.

The advent of e-mail and instant messaging on the Internet has made it easier for her to share her ideas with others.

"It also relieves some of the tension that does arise when I have to call someone," she said.

After establishing her legal career, Ms. Ochs hopes to be active in politics.

Don't be surprised to see her name listed under candidates for U.S. Senate one day, Ms. Williams said.

"Her appetite for accomplishing great things is boundless," she said. "She could have been downtrodden based on her difficulties but I don't think the thought ever occurred to her."

Published December 22, 2002, The Capital, Annapolis, Md.
Copyright © 2002 The Capital, Annapolis, Md.