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Agent of Change: An Interview With a Blind Real Estate Broker

Editor's Note: Rajesh Malik lives in Montreal, Quebec. He teaches psychology at Dawson College and in the Department of Education at Concordia University.

Beatrice Leonard is a real estate broker in Oak Park, Illinois, who has been involved in her profession since 1986. She is blind with some light perception and uses a working dog.

The following interview was conducted via electronic mail.

Q. Could you tell us something about the real estate company you are running?

A. The company is called Beatrice Leonard & Associates. The services I provide to clients are listing and selling property, property management (when needed), and I\'m also working on developing housing for the disabled population to increase their independent living skills. I\'m presently holding licenses for five agents.

Q. How did you become interested in buying and selling real estate, and did you wonder if you might face any problems on account of your vision impairment?

A. I became interested in the process of buying and selling property because I wanted to help people whose homes were in foreclosure. There were many laws that would change about purchasing homes, and the disabled population might not be aware of them. I did suspect there would be problems with people accepting me as a blind realtor.

Q. What courses did you have to complete in order to pursue what you are doing at present, and did you experience any difficulties in obtaining the state licenses required to be a real estate agent?

A. I took the required real estate courses and then the State of Illinois Realtors Exam. I received my license from the Illinois Department of Education and Registration. After getting my license, I had to locate a real estate broker who would hold my license for one year.

I did not have any difficulties in obtaining the state license. I happened to be the first blind person to take the real estate class at the school I attended, and they were tickled pink to have me. The state provided a reader to assist me with exam questions.

Q. For many blind persons, the idea of doing what you do may seem just about impossible. What strategies do you use to perform your job, like in judging the characteristics of a property you are buying or selling, including its size, shape and condition?

A. When I show a property, I bring a contracted home inspector with me. He walks me through each room of the house, checking the foundation, roof, walls, etc. I then sit down with the seller and I tell them the weak points.

Q. How about completing the endless number of forms real estate agents have to fill out while negotiating on behalf of their clients?

A. The real estate contract forms are in PDF format and do not work well with my screen reader. I asked the Board of Realtors to send me the forms in a format I could use and they were put into Microsoft Word, but the lines wrap so I use my reader a great deal.

Additionally, I had problems with the listing board. I had to sue to get the listings in an accessible format I could manipulate. To accommodate my request, the Board of Realtors provided an individual who would pull up listings and email them to me.

Q. It seems you are running a very successful business but still face some discrimination. How big is this problem for you? Do you feel you lose any business because of your vision impairment?

A. If I did not like real estate as much as I do, I would have had to close the doors to my office a very long time ago. People cannot "visualize" a vision-impaired person doing real estate.

I have been featured as a blind realtor on two television news shows and interviewed for three different newspapers, but I have not received one referral from all of that publicity. I have received telephone calls saying, "Keep up the good work. I will call you when I need to sell or buy property." I am still waiting.

When I pull up a property for Illinois, it is the same property that every real estate agent in Illinois sees. Coming to Beatrice Leonard & Associates or going next door to ABC Real Estate Office, we both pull up the same property. It\'s unfortunate they cannot get past my blindness and they don\'t realize that I worked just as hard as the person next door to obtain my license.

I don\'t know if people have a problem with me because I\'m blind or because I\'m an African American. Therefore, I choose to work in property development because it doesn\'t matter if I\'m blind in that field.

Q. Could you describe an incident of discrimination you have faced in your line of business, how you reacted, and how you finally resolved the issue?

A. After receiving my real estate license, I had to work under a broker for one year as is customary, but I experienced great difficulty finding a broker who would hold my license. Four of the real estate companies I contacted gave me the run around, and a secretary at one of the offices felt sorry for me and advised me not to come back because they were not going to hire me. Often I was told that I did not have enough experience.

But I finally met a gentleman who was an attorney and had his broker\'s license. He gave me a chance.

The issue of working with a blind realtor is very real, and one problem is recruiting agents. When someone comes into the office for an interview and they realize that I\'m blind, they are uncomfortable even though I have a real estate license hanging on the wall showing my "worth".

One of my agents was quite candid. She could not visualize someone blind teaching her anything about real estate, but she has repeatedly commented that she has learned a great deal from working with me. That same realtor has been with my office now for six years.

And once when I was showing a property to a buyer, the seller seemed offended that I was blind and called the listing office to complain. How can a blind agent possibly sell her building?

The listing agent corrected her by first telling her I was a broker and my rank was higher than hers. Second, she could not discriminate because I was blind. Third, the blind broker had just faxed over a full priced offer on her property!

But the blind community can be worse! Each of my blind acquaintances is aware of what I do, but they all went to someone sighted to purchase or sell their homes. I was told they felt more comfortable with someone sighted.

But when it was something they did not quite understand about the home purchasing process, they had no problem in calling me to ask questions. Of course, I had to refer them back to the agent with whom they were working and who is going to receive a commission cheque.

We can be our own worst enemies! If we do not show unity in supporting our peers in the disabled community, who will?

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