Deborah Kendrick

Initially, Pshon Barret contacted me to recommend that I write about a friend of hers. As it happened, that friend was already on my list of extraordinary people whose lives and careers would interest AccessWorld readers. But I knew a little something about Pshon Barrett, who happens to be rather extraordinary herself, so sidetracked her to tell me more about herself. I persuaded her to let me write about her before getting on to the recommendation prompting her to contact me in the first place.

(You’ll learn more about the friend she was promoting later; this one is Pshon’s story.)

Mississippi Lawyer

Pshon Barret retired in 2018  from her role as assistant United States Attorney, where she worked on all manner of cases for 30 years on behalf of the United States Attorney. She didn’t retire to stop working. She retired because she got a job offer – and the change was both challenging and rewarding. After traveling the state on behalf of the government for 30 years, she was hired in January 2018 as a senior associate in a private firm. Today, she works from home, putting her expertise in disability law to work for families and individuals who come to ADA Group LLC for help.

Throughout our conversation, Pshon repeatedly protested that her life was boring, her experience not particularly interesting. It is perhaps the very “normal” trajectory of her success when tracked from college to retirement and second career, that makes it so extraordinary. She didn’t suffer years of unemployment or thousands of resume rejections. Instead, she managed, by some mysterious blend of intellect, charm, and savvy to get the jobs she deserved in a timely manner.

In the beginning

Blind since birth due to retinopathy of prematurity, Pshon was the first in her family to attend college, and seems to have had an innate sense from an early age of how to get where she needed to go. Her first school, for kindergarten through grade 12, was the Mississippi State School for the Blind in Jackson, Miss. There, she learned to read and write braille, and other skills of blindness. When she graduated high school, she got a guide dog from Pilot Dogs in Columbus, OH. It turned out that would be her only experience with a guide dog, but she relishes the memory. Role models, she says, have always played a vital role in directing her, and her first rehabilitation counselor had a guide dog, which prompted her to follow suit.

In college at Mississippi State, she decided to pursue a law degree, and eventually attended law school at the University of Mississippi. It was in college that her passion for politics emerged and, somewhat indirectly, led to her professional success.

Her father, a hardware salesman, talked about a man who was running for governor. Pshon wanted to meet that man – and wound up working on his political campaign. He was seeking office as Mississippi governor, and Pshon was thrilled to make speeches and phone calls on his behalf. She fondly recalls taking his calls on the pay phone shared with several other girls in her college dormitory. Her candidate was elected. They remained friends, and later, when a vacancy occurred for legal counsel in the governor’s office, Pshon was offered her first real job.

While there, she applied for all kinds of jobs without real results. Then, she heard a presentation about the role of United States attorneys, and knew that was what she wanted to do. There are 94 U.S. attorney offices, located throughout the United States and its territories and Pshon began applying for any opening. She interviewed in Miami and Houston and elsewhere, but it was the job as assistant United States attorney in Jackson, MS that became her professional home for nearly 30 years.

She had interviewed in Memphis and while they weren’t able to offer her a job, the hiring individual in that office sent Pshon’s resume to Washington. Many government jobs were on hold at the time, and the woman who received that resume was impressed with Pshon; she reminded the attorney in the Mississippi office that his vacancy could be filled by bringing Pshon in under Schedule A. (Schedule A is the provision giving priority to applicants with minority status – such as color, gender, or disability.) The suggestion worked. Pshon was hired. Mississippi had their vacancy filled. The result was a victory from all perspectives!

Her office location as assistant U.S. attorney was Jackson, MS, but much of her time was spent traveling the state, getting facts and testimonies. Early in her work for the government, she was sent on a detail to Washington DC, where she was immersed in law connected with disability rights. When she returned to her job in Mississippi, she became a leader in ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) enforcement. Her cases ran the gamut from simple to complex, involving criminal law, financial complications, and clients making restitution in a variety of configurations. The U.S. Attorney’s office provided her with an assistant who drove her to meet with clients throughout the state, provide reading assistance, and offer support with other visually oriented tasks when required. She worked on all sorts of cases, but describes the role as primarily a “motion practice” involving a fairly small amount of time appearing in court.

Tools of the Trade

Although she is a proficient user of technology today, Pshon worked her way through college and law school with a Perkins brailler, a tape recorder, and human readers.

Only after she was employed in the Federal government did she begin her journey with technology. Because she worked for the Federal government, her employer furnished basic accommodations as required. In Pshon’s case, these accommodations over the years included computers, screen readers, braille displays, and braille embossers. When she was offered a job with the ADA LLC Group, a private law firm located in Montgomery, Alabama, she had to leave her access technology behind. Her new employer provided her was a computer with JAWS, a braille display, and a braille embosser. Now that she works from home, with travel no longer a vital component of the job, she needs an assistant only part-time, an accommodation her new employer also supports.

Full Life, Full Circle

While Pshon Barrett has enjoyed a full and successful career as first an attorney working for government and now as a senior associate in a private practice, her life has by no means been exclusively devoted to work. She continues to be passionately involved with politics and current events, is an avid baseball fan, and talented musician (playing piano and singing for her church and elsewhere.) “I did my job before we had technology and didn’t know that was a problem,” she muses, but had no hesitation leaping in to the wondrous pool of access technology once it was on the scene.

Several years ago, she designed and supervised the building of her own home in Jackson, a two-story home in a gated community, with two master suites. As an only child, she knew that someday her parents would come to live with and depend upon her. That day came seven years ago. Her father is gone now, and her mother, at 92, enjoys that second master suite. “She’s become the child I never had,” Pshon says, with a definite blend of amusement and love in her voice.

Above all, Pshon says that people and her relationships with them have been at the core of her multi-faceted success.

There have always been wonderful role models in her life, she says, from her parents to counselors and teachers, peers at school and other blind lawyers. When she was a third year law student, she and her mother flew to Miami to check out the American Blind Lawyers Association (a division of the American Council of the blind, today called AAVIA, the American Association of Visually Impaired Attorneys.) ”Here were all these lawyers who were blind,” she says. “They were mostly white males, but they didn’t care that I was female. They were all so good to me, such wonderful examples, and continue to be important in my life.”

She has been active in the American Council of the Blind for decades, serving on Constitution and Bylaws, Scholarship, the Audio Description committee and elsewhere.

In 2017, Pshon Barrett was recognized by the Mississippi Women Lawyers with a Lifetime Achievement Award, and in 2020, she was selected as an ABLE Ambassador by the ABLE National Resource Center. (See an article on ABLE accounts in the December 2018 AccessWorld here)

She says she has always had a strong sense of determination and willingness to work hard. Time, she says, has taught her to be more confident and comfortable with her blindness, and recommends that attitude to others. She recommends knowing what you need and having confidence to ask for it.

Pshon Barret has a full like with a healthy balance of work and play. Relationships have been essential to her always, and many people have been generous. “I’d like to think,” she says, “that I am now giving some of that back.”

This article is made possible in part by generous funding from the James H. and Alice Teubert Charitable Trust, Huntington, West Virginia.

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Deborah Kendrick
Article Topic
Employment Matters