Illustration of an eye being blocked by a brick wall

Blind from Birth, Ray Hepper Believes the Law School and Employers Should Increase Focus on People with Disabilities in their Push for More Diversity

Penn Law was one of the only top law schools that granted admission to Ray Hepper L’79.

After earning his undergraduate degree in economics, it was natural, he said, to choose business or law school next. “I’ll always be grateful to Penn for taking a chance on me and giving me the background for a successful legal career,” Hepper said.

His law school experience was not the norm: Born blind, Hepper completed all of his reading by either procuring textbooks weeks in advance — which was sometimes a challenge with professors — so they could be recorded into audio books, or by finding someone to read aloud. He took notes on a Perkins Brailler.

Fast forward to today — where he’s three years into retirement from a lengthy career in the legal energy sector  — and Hepper is an alumni advisory board member of the new Office of Inclusion and Engagement of the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School.

“For me, it was time to give back and try and help other people, and frankly, make the point that disability is part of diversity as well,” Hepper said.

A major aim of the board, he said, is to recruit a more diverse student population and find ways to support them in their education and beyond.
The group is working on an alumni survey to gauge interest in mentoring students who come from marginalized populations, which could include factors of disability, race, sexuality, and being a first-generation law student.

Coming from a blue-collar family was almost as much of an adjustment as being blind at law school, Hepper said. “Being a first-generation kid going to college and then law school is really, really different than kids whose parents were lawyers,” he said.

Hepper would also like to see more support for students with disabilities. Further, he hopes the Law School will actively recruit disabled high school students for their summer programs that introduce students to law as a field of study. Sometimes young people with disabilities, he said, don’t consider legal work even though it’s a viable option.

Upon graduating from Penn Law, Hepper didn’t think it would be difficult finding work at a big law firm. He was wrong. “I will always remember when a partner said (during an interview), ‘I’m sure you’re very smart, but I’m sure someone who’s blind can’t do the work with our clients.’ ”

Instead, he landed a job at the Department of Justice litigating tax cases, and from there built an illustrious legal career with Central Maine Power Company and ISO New England, which plans and operates New England’s electric system and wholesale markets.

Hepper acknowledged that in situations where a disability isn’t apparent, it takes courage to disclose a disability to a potential employer but also stressed the need to be open about it and, most importantly, showcase professional abilities. “It’s a two-way street,” Hepper said, adding that employers need to open their minds to new possibilities.

“I think the truth is,” he said, “the more people get to know someone, the less they look at why you are different and more at what you can do.”