Attorney Sean Pevsner understands what it's like to constantly fight for your rights.
So it's not surprising that the 41-year-old attorney, born with severe cerebral palsy, picked as his first client a student in the El Paso school district who has the same disability and whose parents were fighting for equal education.
And it's not shocking to his friends and family that Pevsner, a practicing attorney for about three months, won his case, though he relies on interpreters and special computers to help people understand his speech and needs help just getting out of bed in the morning.
It is the same sort of grit and determination that's propelled Pevsner throughout his life. Raised in Arlington, Pevsner was one of the first disabled students to be "mainstreamed" in the Arlington schools. In college, he majored in Latin and Greek when not working for civil rights groups for the disabled, then set his mind on law school and the bar exam.
"I have seen him develop from a grinning 13-year-old to a budding attorney," said Mark Whitburn, who is his best friend and part-time interpreter and whom Pevsner inspired to be a civil rights attorney. "That's no small feat with all of his dedication and efforts."
Pevsner brushes off any suggestion that there is time to feel sorry for himself or wonder what his life might have been like without his disability, outside of a wheelchair and the spastic gyrations of his body. He is too busy fighting for other disabled people to have the same opportunities for success that he has had.
"My family was always very supportive and proud of me," said Pevsner, who has lived in Austin for 20 years and has a law office in Round Rock. "They wanted me to push the limits. My mom and dad didn't listen to the so-called experts who said I should be in an institution." No complaints
As a child, Pevsner had many "God moments," said his mother, Carol Pevsner.
There were complications surrounding Pevsner's breech birth, and he was "clinically dead" for about 45 minutes.
When Carol Pevsner learned that her son had cerebral palsy -- a nerve disorder that can occur during birth and creates unruly body movement and muscle tone -- she was "shocked" but equally determined that her son deserved a normal life.
Carol Pevsner remembers telling Sean early on: "You are probably more powerful than a person that isn't disabled because you use your mind far more than people who can get out and do things. Just because your body doesn't work right doesn't mean you are powerless."
When he was 5, Pevsner was enrolled in the Hughen School for Crippled Children in Port Arthur. But three years later he returned to Arlington, where his parents pushed to have their son in classrooms with able-bodied children. It wasn't always easy. The hardest part about raising her son was physically caring for him, because he can't care for himself.
"He never ever complained about being disabled. There was only one time when Sean told me that he wished that he could walk," his mother said.
Pevsner's winning personality made raising him easier, she said. His smile and personality won people over.
Still, Carol Pevsner said that at times it was hard not to be overprotective. But she said parents need to let their disabled children be independent.
"You have to allow them to go out in the world, or they will not have a life," she said.
Pevsner did well in elementary and middle school, but when he started at Lamar High School officials wanted to put him into remedial classes because of his disability.
By then, Pevsner had met Whitburn. Neither he nor Pevsner's mother was going to have anything to do with that. 'Four eyes' and friend
Pevsner calls Whitburn his "brother friend."
Whitburn met a 13-year-old Pevsner in 1984 at Camp Soroptimist for the disabled when Whitburn was a 19-year-old college student and working as a counselor. He first saw Pevsner's "piercing blue eyes and his wavy blond hair" as he walked up to the porch of a camp lodge one evening.
"I remember his arms flailing wildly and his head and torso flopping around loosely," Whitburn wrote in a recent Texas Young Lawyers Association newsletter about their friendship. "Most striking by far, however, was his smile. He was grinning from ear to ear as I approached, and I was intrigued. What could this jumble of perpetually moving limbs find so humorous?"
Pevsner said something. Whitburn couldn't understand it. He leaned closer to hear, adjusting his glasses along the way. Then Whitburn figured out what Pevsner said: "Four eyes," which was followed by peals of laughter.
Such were the humble beginnings of an extraordinary friendship.Whitburn eventually grew so close to Pevsner that after he graduated from Yale University, he postponed graduate school to advocate for his friend to be enrolled in advanced placement classes in high school. One of Whitburn's most important roles was interpreter, working hard to understand his friend's speech, which sometimes seems unintelligible to the average listener.
"There is a general tendency for those seeing Sean on the street to think that he doesn't have a lot going for him mentally. I get blank looks from people," Whitburn said.
Pevsner described how his friend insisted on interpreting his speech without assistance, even during phone calls, as "extraordinary." Whitburn got so good at it he could understand when Pevsner was swearing in public or speaking Latin.
"Mark's ability to interpret my speech became a sacred part of our brother friendship [so much so] that we could share our innermost feelings with each other without any outsiders intervening," Pevsner said.
Whitburn was there for Pevsner when the school district tried to make Pevsner take remedial classes, saying he "couldn't imagine someone with his level of intelligence stuck in remedial classes." Pevsner demanded to be placed in regular classes and insisted on taking Latin. During high school is when Pevsner first dreamed of becoming an attorney.
In 1990, when he graduated from Lamar, Pevsner got a standing ovation. It wouldn't be the last time.Crown jewel
Pevsner continued his study of Latin, then Greek, at the University of Texas. He also continued his fight for better accommodations for disabled students and formed organizations to focus on transportation and other issues. Pevsner was well-known at UT and the Capitol, where he testified before the Legislature on disability issues.
Pevsner insisted on driving his motorized wheelchair everywhere in Austin despite the fact that its narrow wheelbase caused it to tip over easily, leaving him on the pavement until someone would come along to help him, Whitburn wrote. The wheelchair also had what looked like brake levers that pedestrians would grab, thinking he had lost control, reclining the seat and making the chair inoperable. Realizing their mistake, they would walk off, leaving him there until someone rescued him.
"He learned quickly that, despite his accomplishments, society's confusion about the severely disabled would prove intransigent," Whitburn wrote.
After he graduated from college in 1998 (again to a standing ovation), Pevsner's next step was UT law school, where he was inducted into the Friars Society, for those who have made contributions to the university. He had internships at Advocacy Inc. in Austin, a civil rights organization for the disabled, and at the Justice Department. He wrote articles on the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Pevsner graduated from law school in 2004 and began preparing for the bar exam, which he took for the first time in 2005. Even then, he had to take on the legal establishment to get what he was entitled to under the law.
Usually, people are given 21/2 days to complete the bar exam, but the ADA allows accommodations for those who need them. Pevsner requested additional time, including quadruple time on the essay, but the state Board of Law Examiners said no, instead giving him six days to complete the exam.
Pevsner didn't finish the first time and failed. The second time he took the test, Pevsner was granted more time and Whitburn as his interpreter. Pevsner came within 54 points of passing, saying he failed because he didn't have adequate technology or assistants to study the volumes of material and electronic documents.
Before taking the test a third time in November, Pevsner got an EyePro, a device that uses a camera to track eye movements on a computer screen. When Pevsner looks at a letter or icon on a virtual keyboard and closes his eyes, the computer inputs the text or other task, allowing Pevsner to study independently.
Things finally fell into place. Pevsner's third attempt to pass the bar was the charm. Whitburn said he is awed by his friend's accomplishments.
For Pevsner, the moment he learned that he passed the bar exam was just as poignant.
"It was awesome that we did it together, and my passing the bar was the crown jewel of what Mark and I had been working toward for the past 27 years."A good example
When Pevsner was admitted to the bar, he got another standing ovation and praise from the state's top legal officials.
Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson recognized Pevsner because of his accomplishments, and he was the only inductee out of 500 recognized during the ceremony. All the other Supreme Court justices and judges of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals stood up to applaud.
Leah Chapa, Jefferson's sister, also invited a 9-year-old girl with cerebral palsy to watch Pevsner be sworn in. Chapa hoped that Pevsner's accomplishments would inspire the girl.
For Jefferson, the ceremony was just as moving.
"I was impressed by someone with such problems with speaking and writing sitting through the bar examination. I thought it was a good example for anyone else struggling to make it through law school," he said.
Pevsner said he was in awe of being recognized by Jefferson. But he hopes that his accomplishments persuade others in the same situation to keep fighting.
"Disabilities are not something that people should fight to overcome but a part of what makes them who they are. Our minds are the only things that limit us."
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