I don’t think I’m really what people think of when they think about disability. For many, the word disability conjures up images of blue badges, wheelchairs and the elderly. All of which are authentic and valid experiences of disability; just not mine.
I developed epilepsy in my early twenties during my final year of university and before attending law school. Epilepsy is a neurological condition which is characterised by seizures.
As a result, my life has changed in a number of significant ways and I’ve been forced to reassess how to do simple things that I previously took for granted. I have had to navigate studying, exams, a training contract and qualification in a profession that hasn’t yet been entirely successful in understanding or addressing the obstacles disabled people face.
There’s something called the social model of disability, which is the idea that it’s not the condition but barriers in society that make someone disabled.
A good example of this is if you were required to go to work in a fish tank. For this purpose, your inability to breathe underwater would be “a disability”. Your breathing equipment would be your “reasonable adjustments”.
Understanding this model changes the way we think about disability. It reassesses where the responsibility lies in improving representation – it’s our problem, not just my problem.
Last year, I joined the Law Society’s Lawyers with Disabilities Division (LDD) committee. The LDD works with and advocates for disabled lawyers navigating their way through the industry.
One of the most important pieces of work that the LDD have done to date is producing the “Legally Disabled?” research, in partnership with Cardiff University, which examines the experiences of disabled lawyers in the profession.
The findings are truly harrowing and should be recommended reading for all law firms and legal organisations that claim to be disability-friendly employers.
Personally, I am fortunate enough to have a fantastic support network of family, friends and colleagues who have believed in, encouraged and mentored me. I also have privilege in that I do not look disabled; I can disclose my disability on my own terms, when I see fit. I recognise that this minimises the challenges I face in comparison to other lawyers with disabilities.
This is not to say that there have not been obstacles, indeed, there have been several. From these obstacles, I have learned some valuable experiences:
First and foremost, I have learned that disability is not something to merely be ‘accommodated’ or ‘tolerated’. For me, it has been an important chapter in my life. It’s not all I am; but it has shaped how I face challenges and helped me to develop creative solutions to those challenges. I think it’s made me a better lawyer, and a more empathetic person.
Secondly, we cannot and should not underestimate the power of senior role models in the disability space. We are losing too many talented lawyers because they are either failing to progress up the career ladder or leave the law because they have no senior colleagues championing them.
While we desperately need to change the culture of the profession to allow disabled talent to progress, this will take time. In the meantime, senior leaders need to lead from the front and become active allies who give a platform to junior talent and work to address the barriers that disabled people face in the profession. We still have a long way to go to improve representation of disabled people in the legal profession, and I hope that the job won’t fall entirely at the feet of those with disabilities.
Finally, we need to embrace innovation. In a profession full of ancient Latin phrases and quirky court procedures, all-too-often we rely on the fact that “we’ve always done it this way”. This cannot apply to who succeeds and who does not. Perhaps we need to ask whether it is not that we suffer from a lack of talented disabled lawyers, but a lack of imagination.
The successful law firms and organisations of tomorrow will embrace a concept of what could be – investing in job redesign and innovative technologies that allow disabled lawyers to reach their full potential. I sincerely hope this becomes reality sooner rather than later.
Lizzie Hardy is an associate at Eversheds Sutherland and member of the Law Society’s Lawyers with Disabilities Division committee