James Quarmby, Stephenson Harwood
James Quarmby, Stephenson Harwood

By James Quarmby, partner at Stephenson Harwood

I first came out as gay to my colleagues as a newly-qualified solicitor in September 1998 when, a few months after joining, I was asked whether I would be bringing my wife or girlfriend to the firm’s Christmas party. This was, I thought, an ideal opportunity to put the record straight, if you excuse the pun. Fortunately, my colleagues accepted the news with good grace, and I did not notice any change of behaviour towards me. It may sound strange now, but this was a huge relief at the time as attitudes in the City in the 1990s were far from progressive. In celebration, I wrote an article for this newspaper (“Ten ways to reveal your lover”) which itself caused a bit of a stir, with some interestingly homophobic comments being left on The Lawyer’s website, under my article.

23 years later I’m back, this time with a different coming out story. The reason is that, like millions of other people, I have a hidden disability and, once again, I wish to put the record straight.

Not all disabilities are visible – the vast majority (80 per cent) are not immediately obvious, such as learning difficulties, mental health as well as mobility, speech, visual or hearing impairments. Living with a hidden disability can make daily life more demanding for many people, but it can be difficult for others to identify, acknowledge or understand the challenges faced. This issue has been brought into sharp relief by the lockdown, which has exacerbated all sorts of conditions, either through lack of access to medical care or arising from enforced isolation. According to an Office for National Statistics report (dated 5th May 2021) around one in five adults experienced some form of depression in early 2021, which was a 10 per cent increase on the same period in 2020 and a staggering 100 per cent increase on the pre-pandemic period.

Research by Crohn’s & Colitis UK in 2019 suggests that over half of employees with a long-term health condition feel they must downplay their condition at work, and a third will lie about the reason they’re off sick. This accords with my own feelings – as lawyers we are expected to be resourceful and resilient, so admitting to a disability, particularly a mental one, is something that does not come easily. However, I am blessed to work in a firm which has encouraged open debate about mental health and disability, so I feel safe in writing this article.

By now you must be curious about my condition, so I shall tell you – it’s called prosopagnosia or ‘face-blindness’. To save you reaching for Google, it’s a neurological disorder characterised by an inability to recognise faces. It is thought to be caused by an impairment of the right fusiform gyrus, a fold in the brain that appears to control facial perception and memory. In its most severe form, an afflicted person cannot even recognise the faces of close family members, which you can imagine would be quite scary, as well as socially crippling.  Prosopagnosia’s most famous sufferer is Stephen Fry, who has been quite open about the fact that he often has no clue who is approaching him in the street, even when, in one famous case, the man in front of him was his first cousin.

Even in less severe cases, such as mine, the condition can cause embarrassment and awkwardness, as I struggle to recognise the faces of colleagues, clients and business contacts. I can just about cope in organised networking events, as I will study the attendance list beforehand, using LinkedIn to remind myself what people look like. However, I really struggle when I meet people out of context, such as bumping into a client at an airport. At such moments I am totally lost and will try and use conversational clues to work out who I’m talking to. People will no doubt be offended if I do not recognise their face, because they think I have forgotten who they are. But this is not the case; just because I cannot connect your face with your name does not mean I have forgotten who you are – on the contrary, I have a very good memory for names, occupations, and other personal details.

To avoid this kind of embarrassment, I have enlisted the help of my team members and my husband. The strategy is that if someone comes over to say hello to me at an airport, conference etc, and it is apparent I do not recognise their face , then they must immediately put out their hand and say “Hello, I’m James’ husband/colleague etc, pleased to meet you” thus forcing the unknown person to reply with their name, which then enables me to match their face with their name.

Prosopagnosia is a kind of social dyslexia and it’s very annoying, especially for a private client lawyer like me. Yet, I have nothing to be ashamed about – it’s not my fault some fold in my brain is misfiring. By the same token, I cannot blame other people for failing to understand my condition if I don’t make the effort to communicate. That’s the point of this article, to encourage communication.

This is also why Gatwick Airport (of all places) launched the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower, which is a scheme to encourage those with hidden disabilities to wear a sunflower lanyard or to carry a sunflower card. It has been adopted by many other businesses since its launch in 2016 and, during the lockdown restrictions, the lanyard was often worn by people to ‘explain’ why they were not wearing a facemask. Indeed, if only one good thing has come out of the pandemic, then it could be that hidden disabilities are now more openly discussed.

A staggering 70 million working days are lost each year in the UK due to mental health problems alone, costing employers approximately £2.4bn per year. A more open discussion about hidden disabilities will therefore not only help those who are currently suffering in silence, but will also benefit employers; as employees who feel more supported will be more productive.

Fortunately, Stephenson Harwood is very progressive, offering a range of support mechanisms to our people, including ‘Enable’, which is a disability and neurodiversity network. This has been particularly valuable during the lockdowns, helping, for instance, people living alone, with caring responsibilities, home-schooling, depression, fear of returning to the office and so on. We even provide access to clinical psychologists if needed.

My disability is mild, so I wouldn’t dare to preach to anyone with greater challenges, but my experience, for what it’s worth, is that by coming out about your difficulties and differences, you not only help yourself, but also those around you.  So, the next time you bump into me and you’re not wearing a helpful name badge and I look straight through you (even though I may have known you for many years) please do say your name and give me a few seconds to connect your lovely face with my extensive memory banks, in that way we will both be happy.

James Quarmby is head of Stephenson Harwood’s private wealth team.