Drastic under-reporting of disabilities
By Nicola Laver
The number of solicitors underreporting disabilities to employers has not changed in 10 years and this is detrimental to clients and the profession, the regulator said. According to the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), just 3 per cent of solicitors tell their employers they are disabled – virtually the same as a decade ago. The SRA’s report, Promoting disability inclusion in law firms, followed a survey of 3,000 regulated firms in an effort to find out the causes of this under-declaration. The regulator also talked to disability experts and disabled solicitors; and reviewed existing research on workplace disability. The SRA remarked: “One of our most startling findings was around the uncertainty about providing workplace adjustments.” Firms were found to have “little understanding” about the changing nature of workplace adjustments. Government figures show 13 per cent of the UK workforce as a whole identify as disabled, suggesting there are a significant number of lawyers reluctant to admit to their firms they are disabled. This reluctance means many solicitors could be missing out on support and adjustments to which they are entitled – a situation the SRA said “potentially has a detrimental effect on the individual, the firms they work for and ultimately the clients they serve”.
The SRA said the reasons for apparent under-reporting included “concerns that declaring a disability may suggest a lower level of competency, a lack of opportunities for staff to request reasonable adjustments within a supportive environment and firms not having policies, practices and procedures in place to help disabled staff ”. The report revealed that some disabled solicitors felt their disability ‘lowered the bar’ and was perceived as reducing the standard of competence. “We need to change this perception and the behaviours which perpetuate this”, the SRA said. This includes supportive leadership to “set the right tone”; and managers ‘walking the walk’. The SRA found firms put an emphasis on mental health and wellbeing but encouraged firms to “put similar commitment into other areas of disability”. Some of the firms surveyed were found to have implemented specific initiatives and approaches to benefit both employees and clients.
The report includes real life case studies to illustrate best practice from firms; and sets out ways in which firms can promote an increasingly disability inclusive working environment. SRA chief executive Paul Philips said it is important that people who need legal services have access to a diverse and inclusive profession. “We know that diverse businesses are better businesses,” he added. The report focuses on seven key areas of disability-inclusive good practice – namely, culture, leadership, recruitment and making reasonable adjustments; and offers general advice and top tips. Responding to the SRA’s report, Susana Berlevy, chief people officer at Irwin Mitchell, said: “Almost 80 per cent of our colleagues have shared their diversity data with us, which is not compulsory but it enables us to understand what more we can do to encourage people from different backgrounds or situations to work at Irwin Mitchell.”