LEVELLING THE DISABILITY FIELD
By Nicola Laver
What’s it like being a disabled lawyer on the ground? Nicola Laver reports
“Society is more disabling than my body. It is the attitude towards my wheelchair that is far more disabling.” Such a profound statement from solicitor Iyanu Onalaja should cause the profession to sit up and take notice. Because until recently, the challenges faced by disabled lawyers have remained below the radar, eclipsed by other – undeniably vital – diversity issues. These challenges are evidently more insidious than mere physical obstacles. Onalaja is a real estate solicitor at Shoosmiths, Birmingham and has been disabled since the age of seven as a result of medical negligence.
In her keynote speech to Birmingham Law Society’s (BLS) disability sub-committee panel in February, Onalaja told delegates her disability was not a factor during her educational years because support was readily available, but probably because of this, she felt she entered the legal profession naïvely. In reality, she felt her disability was an inconvenience and a burden. “This led to an incredibly tough training contract, so much so that by the end of it I wanted to quit the profession altogether”. Instead of speaking up, she stayed silent. With the encouragement of friends and family, she persevered. “Any firm not permitting me to have the support was not going to be the firm for me”, was her approach.
Shoosmiths stepped up to the plate. Onalaja says: “It has been an ongoing collaborative process, where I am made to feel at ease to express the support I need in order to fulfil my role as a solicitor and also made to feel welcome in the office as whole in a working environment adapted to meet my needs”. Changes the firm has implemented include an earlier start so she can leave earlier (her disability often causes fatigue), regularly working from home, having a personal assistant to do certain tasks such as lifting her wheelchair in and out of the car. T
his means she has the opportunity to “flourish” and completely focus on her job rather than figuring out how to manage her disability in order to do the job. She hopes that being open and honest about her disability with herself, at work and with friends and family has changed or challenged the attitudes of those around her. After a difficult training contract, she now has the right systems of support in place and is “made comfortable to perform my role”. But other lawyers with disabilities are having a tough time.
This January, the profession was confronted with an uncomfortable truth backed up by evidence: that disabled lawyers are disadvantaged, sometimes even bullied. It is an unpalatable thought for most right-minded professionals, but the facts – uncovered by two years of research into the experiences of lawyers with disabilities – make for some difficult reading. No one in the profession should be under any illusion that this is a minority issue, a ‘problem’ that they are unlikely themselves to encounter. Government figures show an estimated 3.7 million people (19 per cent of working adults) are disabled. The true figure may be significantly higher taking into account those with a hidden disability who choose not to disclose it. The report by Legally Disabled? (funded by Disability Research on Independent Living and Learning (DRILL)) concluded that the profession has “a long way to go to address poor behaviour” towards the disabled. It revealed a significant proportion experience bullying, discrimination, and pain and fatigue in the workplace that could be exacerbated by inflexible working arrangements and long hours. Some individuals left their careers because of this – while others needed counselling and or psychiatric support. Many work in inaccessible environments and many face rituals, practices and attitudes that exclude or undermine them in their roles. It found some resist revealing their disability when applying for a position for fear they would not secure an interview. On the other hand, when it became apparent at the interview stage they were disabled they reported largely negative experiences (“the eyes of the interview panel ‘glazing over’ once they entered the room”, said one respondent). Did they not ask for reasonable adjustments, you ask? Some did, but were met with ignorance, hostility and discrimination. Others did not – because they felt hamstrung: the research showed some 40 per cent do not reveal their disability, leading to the reasonable conclusion that they then feel unable to request reasonable adjustments.
Isobel Rogers is a contracts manager in the legal department at University of Arts London (UAL). She sits on the committee of the Lawyers with Disabilities Division of the Law Society (LDD) and suffers a range of illnesses. She says there is “a perception of workplace adjustments (such as desks, chairs etc that fit your body) as fancy perks or that it’s princess behaviour to need to take a break”. She adds: “Eating lunch away from your desk can also be frowned upon, which is completely absurd. I was reprimanded for eating outside. “I’ve been shouted at by my senior manager for taking the bus in the snow which made me 15 mins late for an appointment with only her, no clients (at that point I was spending most of my spare time lying on my bathroom floor vomiting due to a brain tumour. I was in serious pain). She was angry because she’d actually double-booked herself and was trying to get me in and out in the first 10 minutes.” LDD chair Jane Burton says getting people through the door and into work is “the major problem”. She adds: “Employers seem nervous or fearful of how to deal with disabled employees.
Yet the reasonable adjustments needed can be very simple. Once people are in work, usually they do a great job.” LDD members have disabilities ranging from visual and other sensory impairments, impaired mobility, epilepsy, dyslexia and mental health issues. Unfortunately, she says there has been no real discernable improvement recently, apart from Reed Smith who is actively recruiting disabled trainees via its disability affinity group (LEADRS). Reed Smith was inspired by the London paralympics to launch the group in 2012 with the aim of trying to recruit more people with disabilities, as Carolyn Pepper, LEADRS co-chair explains. “Since doing so we have seen a significant increase both in the numbers of applications we receive from people with disabilities and in the number of people we have recruited who have disabilities,” she says.
Today, LEADRS is global with more than 100 members and counting. Pepper comments: “Disability can sometimes be forgotten when diversity and inclusion is discussed but we have put it at the forefront of our diversity and inclusion programme.” Notably, Burton says she has not heard anyone say clients thought a disabled lawyer couldn’t do their job properly. In this digital age when face-to-face meetings with clients are not as necessary as they once were, clients typically won’t – or don’t need to – know their lawyer has a disability. Emily Morris, a paralegal at global firm DWF, says she has only once told a client she is deaf. “The client only had one vocal cord so it is difficult to hear them on the phone. I kept having to ask them to repeat themselves so in the end, I told them I was deaf so he was aware that it was not just him.” Yet this, she found, actually helped to strengthen the client/lawyer relationship; and the client gave great feedback to her supervisor once the case was settled. BIAS Burton says the LDD is “constantly campaigning for inclusion for our members, raising awareness about the realities for employers and trying to break down barriers and bias, both conscious and unconscious”.
Unconscious bias is a toxic thing and, arguably, a trickier challenge to overcome. The Legally Disabled? report found that unconscious bias can “unintentionally, produce disabling effects”. Morris is partially deaf and has an autoimmune condition and, in her experience, “there seems to be misperceptions around disability in the legal profession which is a great shame”. She recalls going for a training contract interview: “The principal partner asked me, in front of two trainees, whether being deaf affects my ability to do the job. I said it doesn’t, I can still hear him. “The other trainees were shocked that he had asked me that question but I think it shows different generations have different perspectives.” At another interview for a training contract at another firm, she recounts: “They asked me if I knew one of their other trainees who are deaf. I am not sure what they were getting at there, but not all deaf people know each other!” Morris chairs the BLS disability sub-committee group and says the recent panel event had a high turnout “which shows that people/ the profession do want to adapt and improve working conditions for disabled lawyers”. To generalise against firms is patently unfair. Morris says: “I was a paralegal at Irwin Mitchell and they have a great attitude to disability and welcome all feedback.” She told the firm she was unable to follow its TV advert originally because it had no subtitles; and explained that if she was unable to follow the advert without subtitles, other potential deaf clients may be the same. “Within a week”, she said, “they put subtitles on their advert.”
Experienced solicitor advocate Robert Hunter is profoundly deaf, but this did not hold him back from reaching partnership at magic circle firm Allen Overy then subsequently at HSF (he was head of fraud at both firms). He is also the founder of City Disabilities, a registered charity that finds disabled mentors for disabled people in or entering the same profession. Hunter comments: “I have met many lawyers who rightly expect me to explain things they find difficult patiently; but who somehow see speaking up to someone who’s deaf as different. We all have differences we need colleagues to help with, whether or not you call them disabilities.” “One of the greatest problems”, he adds, “is employers imposing their own stereotype of disability on the employee; ‘knowing what’s best for them, pronouncing them to be ‘under confident’ or introducing their disability (usually quite unnecessarily) for them.” INVISIBLE In some ways, the mental toll on lawyers with invisible disabilities is greater. Isobel Rogers, for example, has suffered significant ill health over the years and it’s testament to her stamina that she is still in the workplace. Yet her conditions include a brain tumour, chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), chronic migraine and chronic pain. But throughout her illness she has always looked extremely well. “When I returned from work five months after having major neurosurgery in 2018, quite a few colleagues had assumed I’d been on an extended holiday. In that time, I’d had a craniotomy, temporarily lost my sight and hearing, done substantial mental and physical rehab (re-learnt to walk, swim, recite things, etc). For most of this time, I hadn’t even been able to dress myself or wash my own hair, let alone review contracts.” Today, Rogers keeps it all much to herself: “Clients never know and some colleagues I never want to know. I have the great luxury of being able to pretend my illness doesn’t exist, but that also means I’m constantly coping with it on my own. No one ever wants to make allowances for me because they can’t see the necessity.”
And those that do know can be in denial. She explains: “I frequently have people refuse to believe that I suffer CFS and chronic pain even though I’ve had both of these since I was 16 (for 13 years) and they are fully diagnosed. Even managers who see the paperwork.” The strain on her is clear: “I do everything in my power to bring energy to work. I regularly sleep all evening as well as all night. I prep ahead for my week every Sunday night. I frequently sacrifice social events: I haven’t been out on a Friday or Saturday night for a decade because I’m completely exhausted from work.” Flexible working hours is what enables her to work full-time. And working from home (with a specially made chair and a sit/stand desk) is what allows Adam Marley to do his job. Following a spinal injury, Marley has an implant in his spinal column which restricts his mobility and his ability to sit or stand for long periods. He is a non-practising barrister and runs the mental health law department at GT Stewart (he is also taking an alternate route to qualification as a solicitor). Marley was also late diagnosed with ADHD and takes Ritalin daily “to avoid being so loopy!”. Despite his physical limitations, he says: “The circuit I practise on is small so judges mostly know me and know that I can’t sit or stand for a long time and will allow breaks for me to walk around.” And the ADHD? “I found ways of managing it so that people don’t really notice.” Marley does not feel he has particularly suffered disadvantage or discrimination as a result of his disabilities, then again, he’s one of those lawyers who tends to hide his disabilities. He explains: “I found ways of coping so that my disabilities are rarely visible to others… I’m an outgoing kinda guy and my personality gets me through.” But he would like to see “an understanding that sometimes people have disabilities that can’t be seen, so when I ask for something weird (like a break for me to walk around) there’s a reason for it”. Dan Taylor has traumatic tetraplegia following a car accident at 17 and uses an electric wheelchair. He is an aspiring barrister and currently volunteers. Unsurprisingly, the biggest issue for him is physical access to places. “Chambers and courts are not very accessible. T
he knock-on implications are that transport to and from London (I live in Norwich) is problematic, tiring and very costly.” He hasn’t experienced direct discrimination, but is concerned that being in a wheelchair “might put off some chambers because they feel they will not be able to accommodate me if I were to take a pupillage with them”. So Taylor has channeled his concern into a direct appeal to the Bar. In the same week he spoke to Solicitors Journal, he sent a tweet to his 1,200-plus followers asking for barristers and chambers who would be interested in “taking on disabled mini-pupils as part of a trial initiative… allowing disabled people access to the Bar”. He has received a very positive response with a number of chambers offering to help. He believes a coordinated strategy is required for the Bar to accommodate more disabilities, adding: “The disabled community do need a lift up where able-bodied people do not. While I am against positive discrimination, I see this as a way of levelling the playing field, not handing out special favours to the disabled. That will is there but implementing it will be difficult and very time-consuming.”
Rogers would welcome “a kinder, more emotionally adept culture” – lawyers, she says, need more humanity in dealing with these things. On a more practical note, Onalaja would like to see access to work training for employers. The Legally Disabled? report stated: “A poverty of imagination, bureaucracy, belligerent managers and outdated working practices prevent often minor adjustments that would make a huge difference for disabled people.” But the LDD is onto it: on the back of the research, Burton says the LDD will be going to law firms and local law societies to spread the results and the recommendations. The ball is now firmly in the employers’ court; firms had better not duck their heads.