When choosing a career in law I didn’t even think about my disability being an issue. However it was something my close family and friends often questioned. I would quickly silence them with ‘it’s the legal profession, there is not going to be a problem’. How I was wrong!
I started my journey by trying to decide if I wanted to be a barrister or solicitor, so I started my research into different firms and chambers and armed with my top choices for chambers off I went to a pupillage fair.
My first stop was my top choice which here will remain nameless. Sat in my chair the gentleman seemed kind enough, humoured my with the ins and outs of the workings of the chamber, drew me in, this was it, I liked this chamber, I liked this man! I think they are my top choice to apply to, then came the killer – “the only issue we have is we are a listed building so have no access as we are on the first floor, so with you being in a wheelchair I don’t know how we will get you up”. I looked shocked, stunned this is the 21st century, how is this an issue? “There is a way around it though” I asked. Maybe my naivety showed through here as this gentleman that was lovely 5 minutes ago started laughing at me – I mean full on belly laughing “no!” came the reply. Short and simple. In that moment I wanted the ground to open up and swallow me. I held back the tears. How could this be happening?
Nevertheless this was me, I was strong I wanted to be a barrister! I wouldn’t get there if I crumbled at the first sign of rejection. Onwards and upwards… I still hard 14 other companies on my list. On to the next…. And the next…… And the next….. And the next. A few came up with solutions such as leaving my chair at the bottom of the stairs and bum shuffling up and down the stairs. Others said ‘great if we get someone disabled we can finally apply for a grant and get adaptions put in, but it could take months and we don’t know what we would do with you in the meantime’.
There were some that were brilliant don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to put people off totally here as some of the larger companies are fantastic and for disabled people are amazing, but unfortunately they did not offer the area of law I wish to practice. I didn’t want to sacrifice my passion for my disability and I shouldn’t have to.
I’ll be honest I spent the next few months questioning if this profession was right for me. It had knocked me for six. I had experienced people being mean in other jobs over my disability but I could always pass it off as their ignorance or their misunderstanding, with phrases such as my ‘spazy badge’ to refer to my blue badge, or laughing that I need a special office chair to sit in at my desk. This felt different this was a direct hit.
However it seems I am not the only one and whilst it seems wrong, in a weird way there is also some comfort in the fact that I am not alone. Dr Debbie Foster and Dr Natasha Hirst along with Cardiff University have complied a research report entitled ‘Legally Disabled’. The research costing £5 million was commissioned by Drill (Disability Research on Independent Living and Learning) and surveyed disabled individuals in the legal professions, mainly focusing on paralegals, barristers, solicitors and trainees.
The report found that most people with hidden disabilities chose not to disclose their disability at application stage and keep it hidden as long as possible. 54% of disabled solicitors and paralegals felt they were inferior to other members of staff. , The majority of those with disabilities in senior positions had never disclosed their disability to management.
Individuals with a disability also don’t like to ask for reasonable adjustments for fear of discrimination or ill-treatment later down the line. The procedure for individuals to complain was also unclear and the discrimination did not stop with seniority and HR, when questioned, advised they did not get involved with disability complaints.
The research report showed worrying findings that a large number of participants suffered a form of bullying in the work place with 80% feeling this was aimed at their disability. It may be the individuals did not even realise the hurt it could cause, but as the findings show there is not enough awareness of disabilities in the workplace. We are not just talking of physical disabilities here, people in wheelchairs or people with walking sticks. People with disabilities come in all shapes and sizes. Unfortunately disabilities do not discriminate.
Society as a whole needs to change the outlook on how they see disabled people. Individuals with disabilities are sometimes some of the smartest people out there. The person you just called thick may have Asperger’s, but can recite the Offences Against Person Act 1861 off by heart. The person you called four eyes may be severely sight impaired but can tell you where every crevice is in the Supreme Court and the person in the wheelchair you just underestimated is about to take you into court and wipe the floor with you.
This research paper is the first step in making a change in the workplace for disabled individuals in the legal profession. The paper makes a number of recommendations on how companies can start to make changes to incorporate disabled people into the profession. However as there has never been a precedent set, a change needs to happen and this can’t without individuals making a stand. It is not just chambers and firms that need to change but court houses need to take a hard look as well. The inaccessibility is astounding but that is for another day and another article but the legal profession as a whole needs to stand up and say we are making a change and lead by example because if our legal system cannot set an example how will anyone ever learn.
So where am I now after my confidence knock you may ask? Apart from writing articles monthly for you lovely people, my pink wheels and I are getting ready to wipe the floor with all the people underestimating me!
Written By: Victoria-Jayne Scholes
Credit to Dr D Foster Dr N Hirst Cardiff University, Cardiff Business School and Drill