Video by Josh Block; Article by Blake Edwards
On his daily commute from New Jersey, Jack Chen, a lawyer in Google’s New York offices in Chelsea, navigates two train stations, the subway, and busy sidewalks using only what he can hear and smell, the feedback he gets from his cane, and the mental map he’s created in the six years he’s worked at Google.
“Poles and columns, such as you’ll find in the lower level of the A/C/E train in Penn Station, are some of my nemeses,” he said. “I figured out that if I pass the first one and hang what is approximately a 45 degree angle, I can walk through all of them without encountering another one.”
Last month, Chen, totally blind since 16, let us tag along on the last legs of his commute. He also gave us an inside look at his life at Google, showing us around the offices and sitting for a video interview. A graduate of Fordham Law School, Chen started as an associate patent counsel at Google in 2010. In 2014 he became the company’s product counsel in charge of Chrome: what he called “the quarterback or the general counsel of the product from a legal perspective.”
When Gayathri Rajan, a VP of product management based in California, first started emailing with him, she didn’t know Chen was visually impaired. “No one [at Google] is going to tell you, ‘Hey, Jack is going to be working as product counsel, and by the way, he’s blind.'”
Chen has degrees in computer science from Harvard and Berkeley. Before law school, Chen interned at AT&T, and worked as a systems engineer at Xanboo Inc., a New York-based startup that produced internet-based home automation and security systems (the company was acquired by AT&T in 2010).
He also spent two years as a patent and trademark attorney in the New York office of Kenyon & Kenyon, and three years as an associate at Baker Botts.
Susan Lang, president and CEO of Lime Connect, a non-profit that helps people with disabilities find jobs, believes companies are missing out on people like Chen.
“No existing organization was focused on high potential candidates at universities, and people who had graduated university,” Lang said in an interview last month. “Corporate America was missing out on some potential rock stars.”
According to Census Bureau statistics organized by Cornell University, there were more than 7 million adults, age 21-64, with a visual disability in the U.S. in 2014. Only about 27 percent had full-time, year-round employment, and almost 60 percent were completely unemployed.
Blind lawyers in particular have made a mark publicly — like former Skadden Fellow Haben Girma; or international human rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng — and even hold a place in popular culture, like Marvel Comic’s Daredevil character.
In 2013, the American Bar Association issued a pledge asking employers to affirm their commitment to diversity in the legal profession, “including diversity with respect to individuals with mental, physical, and sensory disabilities.” The pledge has been signed by a number of Big Law firms, and large companies like Microsoft, Starbucks, and Walgreens.
“Diversity and accessibility are broader than just what people look like or culture: It’s all walks of life, including people with disabilities,” said Myisha Frazier, a senior corporate counsel at Google, and Chen’s supervisor.
According to a 2011 report from the ABA, almost seven percent of its members reported having a disability. Although 41 percent of ABA entities reported having a lawyer with a disability in a leadership position, there were no chairs or chairs-elect with a disability.
“It’s important that we have laws in place protecting people — the ‘stick’ model — but what’s really going to drive lasting change is when people with disabilities are in the C-suite, running companies,” Chen said.
Chen reads by listening: he uses a screen reader at his desk, where he’s usually standing (when he’s not working on a nearby treadmill desk), and the VoiceOver function on his iPhone. Typically, Chen has the speed set at around 620 words a minute, a speed that is, to the untrained ear, incomprehensible.
When Chen travels for work, he has some familiar spaces mapped out in his head, but his personal assistant, Carolyn Lewis, often looks up where he’s going and writes out step-by-step instructions to help Chen avoid the biggest obstacles as he walks down unfamiliar streets, checks in at a new hotel, or makes his way through an airport.
When Chen attended CNET’s CES conference in Las Vegas earlier this year, held annually to showcase the latest tech gadgets, Gayathri said she was worried about Chen walking with the Google team around Vegas. He had no trouble keeping up, she said.
Chen has competed in five triathlons, including two Iron Man triathlons, consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bicycle ride, and a 26.2-mile run.
Chen does the swimming and running portions by hooking to another athlete with a length of rope; he rides the biking portion on a tandem bicycle. When Chen was preparing for his most recent triathlon, he said he routinely got up at 3:00 a.m. to train before coming into the office.
Asked about his work ethic, Lewis said, “The best way that I can put it is, I very often have a hard time keeping up with him.”
In 2012, Chen climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. “Kilimanjaro has the distinction of being one of the Seven Summits that is doable without special climbing gear,” Chen said. “I wanted to test myself but I didn’t have a lot of time to work on learning climbing techniques. I figured if I liked it, I could get into the gear later and try other peaks.”
As we were wrapping up our video interview last month, our camera operator Douglas Higginbotham had a question about Chen’s Kilimanjaro trip: “Don’t take this the wrong way,” he said. “But if you can’t see the view when you get to the top, why would you climb a mountain?”
Lewis, Chen’s assistant, answered before Chen had a chance: “Because it’s there,” she said.
Chen says that as a child he could see light, colors, and vague shapes, and recalls riding his bike in the street, able to navigate by the sharp contrast between the blacktop and the curbs. Chen believes experiences like these helped him later, when all of his vision was gone.
“I generally couldn’t see cars and had to pretty much rely on my sense of sound to alert me if there was one coming,” Chen said. “Thankfully electric cars weren’t popular back then.”
At 16, Chen underwent an operation to improve his vision, but the surgery, his eighth or ninth at that time, went poorly. “My optic nerve was damaged in earlier operations in one eye,” Chen said. “In the remaining eye, during a critical part of the operation, my head involuntarily moved, and there was some hemorrhaging. My retina broke apart.”
The precise medical reasons for his disability are unclear, Chen said, but there’s good reason to think it’s genetic: Chen’s brother, Richard, was also born with a severe visually impairment, though he’s not totally blind.
A double graduate of Harvard, he’s also, like Chen, the beneficiary of some genetic gifts. “He’s that guy who won all of the awards in school,” Chen said.
Perhaps surprisingly, of all the miles he’s biked, swam, ridden, and climbed, Chen was most animated and loquacious describing his daily commute from New Jersey.
Normally, he relies heavily on his ears to get him where he’s going, but in parts of Penn Station, the subway platform especially, it’s too loud and hectic to make sense of what he’s hearing, he said.
“I also use smells to tell me where I am,” Chen said. “I pass by a coffee place and the Subway sandwich place, and those are smell landmarks to let me know that I have properly made that left turn and am heading to the subway.”
Once Chen leaves the subway station at 14th street, a few blocks from his office, he’s over the hump but not exactly home free: “There are planters and a driveway with cars sometimes,” he said. “You can imagine how difficult this is for someone who can essentially ‘see’, with a cane, only three to four feet in front of them.”
When we followed Chen on his commute last month, we met up with him in Penn Station at 8:45, rode the subway to Chelsea, and filmed him walking to his office on Ninth Avenue. Just a few hundred yards from the office, Higginbotham, camera mounted on his shoulder to record Chen’s journey, was backpedaling, and tripped and fell into a flower bed.
There were immediately obvious comparisons to be made: it turns out being able to see where you’re going does come in handy when walking. Chen just smiled and asked if everyone was okay.