Whatcom Magazine

Bellingham attorney Dave Freeman planning ahead for working while blind

Dave Freeman decided to become an attorney, in part, because he knew it was work he could do even if he went blind.

An Olympia native, Freeman started having problems seeing in the dark when he was about 10. By 14, he was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, an inherited disease in which the retina slowly degenerates, leading to problems with night vision, tunnel vision, and, eventually, blindness. His mother has the disease too.

Freeman, 34, graduated from Western Washington University in 2002 with a degree in political science, then graduated three years later from Willamette University College of Law, in Salem, Ore. He worked as a deputy criminal prosecutor for Whatcom County for five years, mostly handling juvenile cases. He’s now a review judge with the Employment Security Department. He also is a pro tem judge for Everson, Lynden and Ferndale, and does occasional work for the prosecutor’s office.

Freeman has lost much of his peripheral vision and might be starting to lose some of his straight-ahead vision. Retinitis pigmentosa is one of several blinding diseases of the retina that affect more than 10 million Americans, according to the Foundation Fighting Blindness, a national nonprofit raising money for preventions, treatments and cures.

Much remains unknown about retinitis pigmentosa, but it’s known that the rate and pattern of degeneration can vary.

“It’s part of the frustration with the disease,” Freeman says. “It’s so unpredictable.”

When Freeman began thinking about careers, he talked to blind attorneys. People who are blind can practice law with, for example, the use of braille, computerized readers, and assistants who read legal briefs aloud.

“It’s something that I could do no matter how it progressed,” Freeman says.

His tunnel vision makes reading and writing slower, but not impossible. He studied braille in high school and has begun studying it again, although he doesn’t need it yet. With encroaching tunnel vision, he has been using a cane on occasion, although he was hesitant.

“You feel like you’re showing a weakness,” he says.

Freeman has taken up home repair as a hobby, fixing a house he bought in Olympia with his mother.

“It feels great accomplishing projects on it,” he says, “even knowing that it takes a little more preparation and planning, due to my vision loss.”

Freeman has participated in the foundation’s Washington VisionWalk fundraiser for four years, most recently in Seattle in September. His team is called Staches for Sight, “staches” because Freeman is known for having a beard or mustache. Stick-on mustaches and beards are given to team members, even to Lulu, Freeman’s dachshund that was born deaf and blind.

“She’s fully independent,” he says. “A happy dog.”