Disability Lead Member Azeema Akram stepped into a new role as an Administrative Law Judge at the Illinois Human Rights Commission (HRC) this past year. In the position, she not only presides over claims of unlawful discrimination but leads with her full self as a disabled woman of color. Azeema attributes her career advancements to opportunities to connect and be mentored by other attorneys with disabilities. When Azeema was a Fellow in 2018, she was mentored by fellow Disability Lead Member, Andrés Gallegos. Andrés is a nationally respected Disability Rights attorney who is Chair of the National Council on Disability. Azeema says of her time with her mentor, “Having a mentor who understands the challenges we face in a profession that often lacks accessibility for and visibility of people with disabilities was critical for me to both develop my goals and to take risks in advancing my career.”
After the standard interview process, Azeema joined the HRC shortly after Disability Lead Member, Jim Ferg-Cadima, stepped down from his role as Chair. “Jim was a co-Fellow in 2018 and when he told me about this opportunity to adjudicate issues of human rights and redressing discrimination, I was eager for the opportunity.” As the only judge on the Human Rights Commission who has a disability, is a woman, and is a person of color, Azeema finds ways to bring her full self to work. “Under the law, I have to analyze discrimination claims separate from my experiences, but they remind me of my own experiences and the lessons I’ve learned through self-education about intersectionality. The awareness I have gained on a personal level and the unique strengths I have from my disability make me a better judge,” says Azeema.
In the courtroom, Azeema finds moments to make sure she is bringing her disability identity to the forefront. During a recent case, Azeema reflected that she “admonished the employer for using the word handicapped in their briefs, and I cited the bill that changed the language of the law almost 15 years ago. That’s just one thing I can do from my position to help educate litigants and improve the legal field.”
Azeema’s advocacy and leadership goes beyond the courtroom. She serves on the Executive Board of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Bar Association, is a member of Red Clay Dance Company’s Executive Committee, serves as a Community Representative on the RTA’s Eligibility Review Board, and Co-Chairs Disability Lead’s Program Committee. She can also be seen dancing in community and cultural events throughout Chicago.