Around 16% of the working-age population in the UK is disabled, with the majority of impairments not visible to others. Under the 2010 Equality Act, disability is defined as having a physical or mental impairment that has a 'substantial' and 'long-term' negative effect on your ability to do normal daily activities, and covers a wide range of conditions and illnesses including dyslexia, cancer, and mental health. Businesses must make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to support disabled job applicants and employees.
However, in practice those with a disability still face stigma and may choose to hide any limitations during the recruitment process. Where a disability is apparent an employer may, whether they admit it to themselves or not, be steering themselves away from that candidate out of concern over the potential cost of modifications needed to help that person work to their full potential – or their own prejudices.
Even where there are the best of intentions, unintentional bias can creep into the recruitment process: those with dyslexia, for example, may find psychometric testing more difficult, and can find answering certain types of questions at interview hard.
Both parties lose out. If a candidate is not upfront, then it can have a negative impact on their performance at interview and in their new role. If an employer discriminates against a disabled person, there are obviously legal ramifications; but also they miss out on key talent.
Disability in law
Research for The Lawyer in November last year found that only around 1% of individuals at the smallest firms regulated by the SRA report having a disability, with the proportion falling to just 0.7 per cent at the larger firms: this is clearly not representative of disability in the wider population (16% of the working age population are disabled according to 2014 government figures). The Lawyer concludes that disability remains the most under-represented diversity strand in the legal profession.
Either law firms are not recruiting those with disabilities in more representative numbers, or those who work in law fear stigma and do not declare their disability. It is also possible that some of those with a disability don’t actually feel ‘disabled’ by their condition and so don’t declare it.
However, clearly work needs to be done. There is a lack of partners stepping forward as disability role models, Hogan Lovells’ diversity and wellbeing head Alison Unsted told The Lawyer.
Mentoring schemes are one way forward. City Disabilities offers mentors to those working in the City of London. It notes that some firms overreact to disability, and use it to promote the fact they are ‘good’ about disability. However, firms who regard disability as a practical problem to be solved, rather than a prominent feature of an employee, have the right attitude.
The organisation also advises on the issue of whether to disclose a disability or not. This is a complex and individual issue, and relies on many different factors including the nature of the disability, whether it impacts upon the role, and a firm’s attitude. It recommends that individuals do their research on the firm, and adds that some pay lip service on disability diversity with shiny brochures, while some of the best employers do not champion disability and inclusion – they just get on with the job of enabling all of their employees to do their best. Getting in touch with those with direct experience of the potential employer is advised.
The issue of disclosure is also discussed in more detail on the Great with Disability website. The organisation provides support for disabled graduates in a range of industries, including law, and has the support of 13 law firms.
The rise of assistive technology
Firms need to be ready to demonstrate their ability and willingness to support those with additional needs. Cost should not be a barrier. Indeed, much of the modifications are inexpensive, or come free such as providing more flexible working arrangements. A grant through the government scheme Access to Work can also be obtained to cover costs for the likes of specialist equipment, support workers and travel.
Assistive technologies are developing apace and are often as inexpensive and commonplace as an iPad. In an article in Law Technology Today, there is a link to several stories of assistive technologies in the legal workplace, including that of a blind office manager of a law firm practice who uses JAWS (Job Access With Speech) for Windows, a computer programme that works as a screen reader. There’s also a quadriplegic man who has built his law practice with the aid of Dragon NaturallySpeaking so he can do things such as take notes into a digital recorder that Dragon transcribes into the computer, and operate programmes such as Lexus.
A partnership approach
However, it is a vicious circle. Even when employers are willing to provide the necessary support to an employee with a disability, they cannot do so without disclosure. But that will only happen when the employee, or candidate, feels confident to do so. Mentoring and role models are a crucial part of the equation, so too is demonstrating that a firm can offer practical solutions and a supportive culture. To drive progress and normalise disability in the workplace will require everyone to play their part.