Lexington attorney sees possibilities, not disability

Amy Dougherty, right, sat with her mother, Shirley Dougherty, at Bluegrass Elderlaw, a Lexington law firm where Amy Dougherty is a partner.
Amy Dougherty, right, sat with her mother, Shirley Dougherty, at Bluegrass Elderlaw, a Lexington law firm where Amy Dougherty is a partner.

Amy Dougherty has never felt a sense of limitation.

She is a partner at Bluegrass Elderlaw in downtown Lexington, a former attorney with the state’s Public Service Commission, an active church member who has frequently traveled to Nicaragua to do volunteer prison ministry.

Dougherty has arthrogryposis multiplex congenita, a condition that causes some joints to be stiff and crooked at birth. People with AMC lack normal range of motion in one or more joints.

“A lot of one’s self-perception is looking at other people,” Amy Dougherty said. “Very little of my life has been about my disability.”

It’s not that Amy Dougherty doesn’t need help: She takes Lextran’s Wheels to work to transport her wheelchair, and employs assistants to help her at home.

But she’s used to her routine, enjoys her time in the Wheels community and mentors her assistants. She appreciates people’s concern, but she’s fine, thanks.

“I’ve just finally learned to thank people and tell them I’m OK,” she said.

Now, at 55, “I’m having more fun that I’ve ever had,” she said. “I like being able to be out in the community.”

She never considered herself disabled. Nor did her parents consider that she had any less need to achieve than her three siblings — including sisters Jeanie and Lenore and brother Mark — all of whom made the academic honorary Phi Beta Kappa.

In a 1983 Herald-Leader article, Amy Dougherty, then 22, said: “My parents placed a high priority on reading. We always got books for Christmas; we still do.”

Dougherty was born in 1960 as one sister in a set of identical twins born to Joe and Shirley Dougherty, Barren County natives who were then living in Smyrna, Tenn., where Joe was stationed with the Air Force at the now-closed Sewart Air Force Base.

Her disease — arthrogryposis multiplex congenita — is a defect of unknown etymology. Although her identical twin, Jeanie, was born without handicaps, Amy was half her weight and her arms were fully extended, her elbows unable to bend. Amy and her father were taken to the Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, while Shirley remained with Jeanie.

“It’s a disease that’s very hard to understand and it’s different for everyone who has it,” Amy Dougherty said.

While today AMC is detected via ultrasound examination, the Doughertys did not know until birth that they were having twins.

“We were frightened and very grateful that she was able to get good care and live,” said Shirley Dougherty of Lexington, Amy’s mother.

Although Amy Dougherty had numerous surgeries as a child and still wears leg braces that weigh 5 1/2 pounds each while she motors fluidly around the sharp curves of her Mill Street office, she said she has never felt limited. She can stand, but it’s hard for her to walk long distances.

Her twin Jeanie helped her with physical challenges while she was in school. The family traveled through Europe while Joe Dougherty served in Wiesbaden, Germany.

The two graduated from Henry Clay High School after moving to Lexington from northern Virginia when their father became the commandant of the Air Force ROTC detachment at UK.

Amy Dougherty took ROTC classes at UK although she knew she could not qualify as an Air Force officer. She did it to participate in what her father was doing at the school.

“I actually wore a uniform,” Amy Dougherty recalled. “I didn’t realize it would cause such a stir. People thought I was Jeanie and had undergone some calamity.”

Shirley Dougherty said that UK was “avant garde” in accessibility for her daughter. Amy Dougherty said that access at UK was not a problem for her.

Her mother never tolerated less than a stellar academic performance from her children, Amy Dougherty said. When Amy became involved in a campus faith-based group and her grades began to slip from her usual As to Bs, “My mother said if I was going to do that, I should just go dis-enroll right away.”

Said Shirley Dougherty, now 81: “I think that has paid off.”

Because does not have the functioning biceps that most people use to move their arms, Amy Dougherty calls upon her back strength to do things, like writing: “I wrote out all my exams in college and in law school,” she said, often without the benefit of extra time.

She clerked for then-Kentucky Chief Justice Robert Stephens before going to work for the Public Service Commission, where she remained for more than two decades, specializing in telecommunications law.

In a 1995 case in which she represented the Rutherford Institute of Kentucky, a nonprofit conservative legal organization, on behalf of Army enlistees who wanted their children’s care providers to be able to say grace or read Bible stories, Amy Dougherty’s side prevailed, arguing that the day care regulations violated rights including their First Amendment rights to free exercise of religion and free speech.

“I felt like a kid at an oversized table,” Amy Dougherty recalled, about dealing with the cadre of attorneys opposing her. “But we prevailed.”

After retiring from the state in 2008, she got a job working in eldercare law for legal aid. She began working at Bluegrass Elderlaw in 2012.

Amy Dougherty said she went flying with her late father three times in his small Cessna, in which he flew to a national aviation record in 1999, touching down in each of the 48 contiguous states in five days, five hours and 11 minutes. The logistics of his tiny Cessna made it hard to get her onboard, and she prefers larger planes. Still, she remembers it as a very happy moment in her life.

“My dad was so happy flying,” Amy Dougherty said. “That’s just the way it was.”

Cheryl Truman: 859-231-3202, @CherylTruman