Finding Opportunity In The Struggle
Local Attorney Uses Her Battle with Invisible Illness to Help Others
As an esteemed, highly successful attorney in Brentwood, Julie Ann Giammona has spent the past 30 years building a career defending California employers. Yet, her hardest fought case was her own.
For the past ten years, Julie Ann hid behind a façade of wellness. Her beautiful hair, youthful energy, and spunky smile masked an internal struggle few knew she lived.
Julie Ann battles dysautonomia, an umbrella term for a malfunction of the autonomic nervous system that includes her specific condition: postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS). This neuro-cardiovascular condition causes an abnormally high heart rate, low blood pressure, and improper blood flow throughout her body. Additionally, Julie Ann lives with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), despite never having smoked, as well as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, an autoimmune condition that impacts her thyroid function. The combined conditions cause severe, debilitating fatigue and shortness of breath.
“Anyone with an invisible illness is a great actress,” Julie Ann said. “We smile and say we feel fine, when asked. We do not want anyone to know something is wrong. We’re never going to let someone see us at our worst.”
It was not until recently that Julie Ann made her diagnosis public, realizing she has a platform to advocate for change in the professional community.
“The day we won the motion was one of the best days of my life.”
USING IT FOR GOOD
During a recent case, Julie Ann requested opposing counsel allow her to take depositions remotely and in 4-hour segments of time, due to her disability. Opposing counsel resisted and demanded that Julie Ann provide him details of the specific nature of her disability. Under California law, such information is protected. Julie Ann, with the support of her firm, Ferber Law, made the decision to file a motion and fight back.
“This was not a decision I made lightly,” she said. “I went back and forth in my mind many times about the consequences of going public after having been in hiding for so long. I thought, ‘What if we lost the motion; what if people did not believe me?’ I was only able to move forward with the motion because of the support I had from Michelle Ferber, founder and managing shareholder of Ferber Law, who encouraged me to fight for what was right. The day we won the motion was one of the best days of my life.”
Julie Ann began to meet other professional women who also live with invisible disabilities. Together, they felt empowered to advocate for others who also hid their struggles. Julie Ann organized a webinar entitled: “Embracing Invisible Disabilities–Ending the Silence of Shame,” which was presented at a California Women Lawyers’ event (for which it received an award) and a Contra Costa County Bar event. The webinar featured multiple panelists who live with invisible disabilities. Michelle Ferber joined the panel to give insight into what it is like to employ someone with an invisible disability. Michelle strongly believes that providing accommodations is worth it, as the value of the employee far outweighs the modifications required.
JULIE ANN’S MESSAGE
During the webinar, Julie Ann explained that an invisible disability encompasses many different conditions–from learning disabilities, anxiety, and depression to fibromyalgia, autoimmune diseases, arthritis, or heart conditions. It is estimated that one in ten people suffer from an invisible disability in America.
"Julie Ann began to meet other professional women who also live with invisible disabilities. Together, they felt empowered to advocate for others who also hid their struggles.”
Julie Ann educated the attendees at the webinar on how to recognize “ableism.” Ableism is another “ism” word–like racism or sexism. Simply put, ableism is discrimination in favor of able-bodied people. Ableism is a set of beliefs or practices that discriminate against people with physical, mental, or intellectual disabilities, whether these be visible or invisible. She explained, “Ableism is intertwined in our culture. It is seen in the structure of society that excludes people with disabilities. It is also seen on a personal level by those who treat someone with a disability as less than, or not equal to others. Despite multiple laws making disability discrimination illegal, ableism still appears as a socially acceptable form of discrimination. Ableism is subtle, sinister, and dangerous; it is engrained into our everyday language without us even realizing it. Ableism causes the stigma, the silence, the shame.”
Awareness is the key to removing the barriers that create ableism. “It must start with education and open discussion,” Julie Ann said. “People are not used to making accommodations, but it’s not as complicated as one may think.”
Due to the unpredictable nature of invisible illnesses (symptoms present differently on any given day), many people lack understanding. Being willing to engage is critical. “Don’t be afraid to have discussions, ask questions, and direct people to resources,” Julie Ann said. “Engagement can happen in many ways but should always be done with compassion to promote authentic dialogue.”
“Everyone has something to offer, and we want to be inclusive of all types of people,” Julie Ann said. “I am thankful that Michelle Ferber saw the value I bring to the firm instead of focusing on my disability, as many others in my life have done.”
Because of its outstanding work in support of diversity, equity, and inclusion, Ferber Law received the 2020 Platinum Award from the Contra Costa County Bar. The announcement said, “By serving historically disadvantaged populations through pro-bono work, increasing awareness of invisible disabilities through education, and advocating for people of color, Ferber Law is contributing to a more equitable society where true community is experienced by all.”
Julie Ann serves on the Contra Costa Bar Association’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Subcommittee. She is also the Chair of the Subcommittee for Dismantling Ableism. She is the Treasurer for the East County Section of the Contra Costa Bar Association, where her role as an officer gives her an additional platform for advocacy.
SERVING THE COMMUNITY
Moving forward, Julie Ann will continue her focus on advocacy. As the Chair of the Subcommittee on Dismantling Ableism, she is leading the way for the Contra Costa Bar Association to apply for a grant from the California State Bar. The grant will provide funding for the required technology to host hybrid events to allow people to attend the same event both remotely and in person. This will allow persons with disabilities, who cannot always attend an in-person event, the opportunity to be seen and heard, to participate, and to not be invisible.
Julie Ann explained that COVID-19 has brought health issues to the forefront and given her an opportunity to help a new group of people. “Every day, we are hearing about people living with the after-effects of COVID. These COVID ‘long-haulers’ may need accommodations in the workplace,” she said.
Advocating for cultural competency, Julie Ann continues to speak on diversity, equity, and inclusion. She strives to build partners on a local level who can help further the message in the community. Julie Ann has volunteered with local youth, speaking at Heritage High School’s Vocational Transition Class for seniors, sharing information on how to overcome diversity, specifically disabilities, and still find a successful career.
Julie Ann will continue to work remotely from her home office in Brentwood while serving the community she loves. “It’s been a year of great growth,” she said. “The challenges I faced provide me the opportunity and ability to speak my truth publicly in the legal profession.”
Photos By Melissa Van Ruiten