At the end of last year, The Lawyer published research findings on disability. According to their figures, 1 per cent of individuals at smaller law firms report having a disability, with the proportion falling to 0.7 per cent at larger firms. Yet 19 per cent of the UK population and 16 per cent of working-age adults have a declared disability. The Lawyer’s conclusion was that disability remains the most under-represented diversity strand in the legal profession.
So what’s the problem? Either law firms are not recruiting candidates with disabilities, or they are recruiting them, but the candidates are not telling their employer about their disability.
At City Disabilities we work with lawyers who have disabilities. Their stories range from inspiring to horrifying. But out of the hundreds of people we have worked with, only a small fraction have told an employer about a disability that they could have concealed.
Most employers decry this situation. They say that they cannot put reasonable adjustments in place for disabled employees if they do not know they are there.
This is a fair point, but the unspoken assumption is that disabled employees are needlessly concerned about discrimination. Once they tell their employers about their disability, they will realise how wrong their concerns were. Many people who have disabilities have lived with them all their lives. They have a lot of experience of how others react to them, including people who do not regard themselves as prejudiced. No doubt some people with disabilities are pleasantly surprised by reactions they get now and again.
Either way, this readiness to dismiss their judgment and experience of how others react to their disabilities, is a symptom of the wider problem.
Let’s be clear. Many city firms are great with diversity and inclusion. Hook up with one of these and you can just get your head down and get on with the job, like everybody else.
What about the others? It’s time to embrace an ugly truth. In some places, disclosing a disability is not a good idea. Sometimes this is because they are unfamiliar with disabilities and over react. Others over react in the opposite direction. “Diversity” is positive PR and much money is spent publicising it. A more subtle difficulty is where the employee finds their disability “featured”. They may be encouraged to speak at events, and appear in diversity magazines and articles.
Within reason, this can be a positive thing. But sometimes it can convey the unfortunate message that the employer has been “good” about the disability. Perhaps the most depressing part of this situation is where the employee has bought into this thinking, to the extent that they regard their disability as a salient feature. Often the employee is so anxious to be “open” about their disability that they regard it as a guilty secret and raise it in circumstances where it has no practical impact on their work whatsoever.
Our experience is that those firms who regard disability as a practical problem to be solved, rather than a prominent feature of an employee, are the best. This is the right approach and we find it is always good to discuss disabilities with employers like these.
When we talk to students with disabilities at universities, or employees interviewing for new jobs, they are still very unsure of whether they should discuss a disability at an interview if they don’t have to.
We are often asked how to advise a person in this position. We do not devalue their judgments or spoon feed them an answer. From our experience, we think it is irresponsible to generalise. Each person, firm, working group and disability is different. Our detailed advice on disclosure can be found here. What we do suggest is this: contact us. We will put you in touch with other disabled people who work there so that you can hear what things are like first hand and in confidence.
Robert Hunter is a partner at Edmonds Marshall McMahon.
If you would like to discuss if and how to raise your disability with an employer, email firstname.lastname@example.org. If you are an employer and would like to work with us on disability and inclusion then please do get in touch. The service is entirely free.