Seventy per cent of disabled students are concerned about disclosing their disability to potential employers. Laura Manning asks why
Speaking with Sana Viner, an associate at Wragge & Co, you would not know she is disabled. She believes she has no reason to disclose this fact and would not choose to do so unless it was necessary. And Viner is not alone. As of this February, some 13 per cent of Wragges employees indicated they would prefer not to disclose whether they had a disability or not, despite the fact that anyone subjected to discrimination today would have recourse through the Equality Act 2010. The reason? That discrimination can take many forms, and when it comes to disabilities a lot can go unmonitored and unnoticed. It could be a stereotypical assumption or a comment about a person’s ability. It may be alleged ‘jokes’ or unwanted and patronising comments or behaviours. It does not even have to be direct, but can be alluded to or inferred.
Viner explains her position as this: I don’t want to be recognised for being the blind lawyer, but for being a good lawyer,” she says. “My chargeable hours are the same as everyone else’s, my work is the same and how
I do it shouldn’t matter.”
A recent survey (Lawyer2B.com, 21 February) revealed that more than 70 per cent of affected graduates are still concerned about disclosing a disability to potential employers or would prefer not to disclose it at all. To combat this, the company that carried out the independent research, My Plus Consulting (MPC), suggested greater transparency within law firms.
“If there’s nothing on a firm’s website, obviously students aren’t going to feel comfortable talking about their disabilities,” says MPC founder Helen Cooke. “There a number of things [firms] could do on their websites, such as make sure there is access to specific diversity data or be specific about disabilities through specialised profiles or testimonials – they should also look at linking through to disability networks.”
But in practice, transparency rarely seems to work for law firms. Staying with Wragges as an example, only 1 per cent of its workforce was comfortable about disclosing their disability in recent diversity monitoring data. And, according to Ashurst corporate social responsibility manager Deborah Dalgleish, in her experience few firms get enough participants to warrant internal disability networks.
So if greater transparency is off the table, what can employers do to ensure they promote themselves as open and accepting of those with disabilities?
Dalgleish insists it boils down to one thing – familiarity. “Much of where the profession dealt badly with issues like this in the past was down to a lack of familiarity,” she concedes. “A lot has been done in the past decade in raising awareness of diversity issues around ethnicity and gender, and the same thing is needed for disability. It’s got to be an ongoing process of educating firms on how to deal with disability.”
Willingness to disclose
One area of ambiguity involves the term ‘reasonable adjustments’, as there is no one-solution-fits-all method available. No piece of legislation gives clear examples of reasonable adjustments or when they should apply. Much depends on the nature of the adjustments and the level of resources available to the employer.
The scope of reasonable adjustments can therefore stretch far and wide, with Dalgleish describing it as “one of those how long is a piece of string-type questions”.
“You have to think about anything that will put someone on a level playing field, but not that would act as a substitute for a skill needed by a lawyer,” she adds, giving the example of a barrister she met with a speech impediment whose ‘reasonable adjustment’ simply involved patience.
BPP Law School (BPP) head of learning support Nick Glossop says few things would be deemed unreasonable, and that most of the time allowing for a reasonable adjustment is hindered only by the disabled person’s willingness to disclose.
“What’s reasonable for most institutions is quite broad,” he says. “It may be a case of changing interview dates so the person can bring their carer along, providing common support for someone with a hearing or visual impairment or just ensuring there is a designated parking space.”
So why not disclose a disability for the purpose of obtaining a reasonable adjustment?
Cooke believes that first, the words ‘inform’ or ‘tell’ should replace the term ‘disclose’, because its meaning can be misconstrued. Second, firms should have a contact in the HR department to help disabled applicants talk about support and understand why the employer needs to know about a disability.
Viner finds that the term ‘adjustment’ also throws up the negative assumption that she cannot physically meet the demands of practising law. “I don’t see speech software on my computer as an adjustment, as it doesn’t adjust the way I do my work,” she insists.
That said, unlike the 70 per cent mentioned earlier, Viner has never had concerns about asking her education provider or law firm for what she needs to put her on a level playing field with her peers.
“I’m lucky as I’m quite assertive, and I know what I need and I’m not shy to ask for it,” she explains. “It’s important as I don’t want someone not to give me a piece of work because they are worried about how I’ll do it.”
Viner decided to disclose her disability early in her training contract application because of the extent of her visual impairment. Due to the increase in online assessments for training contract applications, many of which are in the wrong format to be translated into an audio format, she was required to complete the tasks in person at the law firm.
But Legal Practice Course (LPC) student Snehal Sidhu believes it is not always necessary to disclose at the initial stage.
“In terms of disclosure, if it is relevant to your application – if the disability has affected your academic results – it would be important to disclose early,” explains Sidhu, a full-time wheelchair user. “But if it hasn’t, I would be hesitant to do it at initial application stage.”
Ambitions and anxieties
When Lawyer 2B questions her about her hesitancy to disclose, she admits she fears a stigma is still attached to disability and that it may jeopardise her chances, particularly with regard to vacation schemes.
“The firm is not connected to you – you’re in a situation whereby you need an adjustment more than they need you,” she says. “This could lead to you not getting a vacation scheme or work experience.”
However, many reasonable adjustments are provided by external resources such as Access to Work and Blind in Business, removing any potential burden from the law firm.
Much of the equipment Viner uses was provided by Access to Work, a government scheme to help those with health problems or disabilities. The items she has received include a braille embosser and a note-taking device. The only support the law firm had to provide was the adaptations required for Viner’s guide dog, Amelie.
Meanwhile she used Blind in Business as a point of contact for the law firm during her initial application and interview. It provided advice to the firm on how to make assessment materials accessible.
In most cases an adjustment is only unreasonable if it is not financially viable for the firm or it cannot obtain permission to make the necessary modifications to the building – if it is listed, for example.
Arunima Misra, a newly qualified lawyer at Ashurst, says people who are disabled must be “realistic in their ambitions”.
“There was no point in me applying to a law firm that has six flights of steps and can’t get permission to put a lift in,” concedes Misra, who has a permanent physical disability called paraparesis that affects the muscles in her legs. “I had to be realistic.”
Agreeing, Sidhu says she is aware that smaller firms may not have the funding for the reasonable adjustments she might need, such as the installation of a lift.
“I’m already subconsciously de-selecting from my list the smaller firms as I know it would be difficult in terms of access,” she explains. “I don’t expect them to adjust for me and therefore I remove them from the start.”
She admits that the need to apply to larger firms that would be capable of providing reasonable adjustments is an added pressure that a non-disabled student would not have.
“You also de-select certain areas of law such as criminal, because you’d likely need to be able to access police stations and courts regularly which may have limited access,” she adds.
Aside from reasonable adjustments, Misra admits that she does not think law firms do enough to attract disabled students. She believes there should be more dedicated events and forums, and a rethink of the structure of law fairs in particular.
“Going to law fairs was an overwhelming experience for me as I wasn’t the same height as everyone else, which was quite scary,” Misra explains. “I felt I couldn’t get enough out of it. Although I had the confidence, I didn’t want to shout across a sea of bums.”
The Ashurst associate also thinks that law firms need to target a broader range of universities to give disabled aspiring lawyers a fair chance.
“I know certainly the magic circle and top City firms target the cream of universities only, but there are shining disabled graduates who wouldn’t have applied to those universities because of a lack of confidence,” she adds.
Access at university can also be a reason why some disabled would-be lawyers are put off applying. “Students need to be encouraged and given the confidence to disclose their disability to an institution,” asserts Glossop.
Giving an example, Glossop tells of a student with epilepsy who wanted to complete an art degree. The reasonable adjustments needed were a resting stool put in place at all times and to train staff appropriately.
For Sidhu, reasonable adjustments have included rest breaks in her exams and being given a two-person desk to fit her wheelchair beneath.
Despite most universities’ readiness to provide reasonable support, Viner describes her experience at university as “tainted”.
Viner was not equipped with the same anthologies or editor’s notes as other students studying English Literature, because they were not in the right format to be translated.
“I couldn’t understand how students were coming out with intelligent points in lectures,” she recalls. “It ruined it for me. My whole experience at university because of that was tainted.”
Experiences at private LPC providers have been better. “Law is more accessible as a lot is online, so I found it easier studying law instead of English,” Viner adds.
“I was slightly suspicious about how a private provider would cope with disability,” Sidhu adds. However, she found that BPP was helpful during her Graduate Diploma in Law.
“There’s a lot of work that needs to be done in the education system and for parents to educate and inspire their children to apply for top universities and aim higher,” insists Cooke. “Employers have to be disability-confident, individuals need to build confidence and their aspirations and universities have to do more in terms of careers advice.”
Cooke explains that MPC is planning a new cross-industry event for school-age children, particularly those studying for GCSEs and A-levels, in an attempt to raise aspirations.
“It’s fair to say the rate of disclosure for disability is far lower than for ethnicity or sexual orientation,” adds Dalgleish. “The more events like Open [a careers event for disabled students interested in law], the more you break down barriers on both sides.”
Dalgleish believes that employers have become more keen to create diverse workforces in recent years, and Cooke agrees.
“It’s not going to change overnight, but it’s a journey and a number of firms have woken up and realised they are missing out on a pool of talent if they exclude those who are disabled,” Cooke says. “Firms need to have a strategy – there’s no point taking a scattergun approach to it and trying out all sorts of things.
“The best way for firms to become more disability-confident is to start on the journey. As they recruit more disabled people, it will become ‘business as usual’.”