We have celebrated Disability History Month 2022 this week, and we are happy to say that this year there have been excellent strides in creating further awareness and more wins for those who have disabilities both visible and invisible. Although, there is still a substantial amount of work to be done, we must be proud of the advancements we have made and commend those who have pushed to create awareness.
We would like to congratulate Reena Parmar, Senior Knowledge Lawyer at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer for her new role as Chair of the Law Society of England and Wales’s Disabled Solicitors Network. In November 2022, our colleagues Lewis Anstiss and Saadia Sharmin had the opportunity to speak to Reena over a zoom chat to gain further understanding about disability in the workplace. Below is a transcript of their conversation:
Saadia: Globally 1 in 7 of us live with a disability and of that number 80% are invisible disabilities so how do we as a profession provide a foundation for people to feel comfortable to open up about disability?
Reena: As you quite rightly point out, the statistics around disability are eye-opening! And if you factor in neurodivergence, as well as those with caring responsibilities, it quickly becomes apparent that disability is not a minority issue. Despite this, the needs and barriers of our community have not been given the same priority as other diversity characteristics. The legal profession is behind the curve in addressing this imbalance, and law firms need to do more to make the workplace as inclusive of disability as of other diversity characteristics.
Ultimately, people will only open up if they feel like they are in a supportive and welcoming environment of psychological safety. Without that environment, those who can mask their disability and neurodivergence will often do so.
But there is no quick fix. Creating a culture of disability inclusion, where people feel able to openly talk about disability or neurodivergence, is complex and takes sustained time, effort and engagement at all levels within an organisation, from senior leadership downwards, across a wide range of areas.
That level of complexity can be a barrier to firms getting started on this journey; disability inclusion sometimes gets put into the “too hard to tackle” box. But open dialogue about disability and neurodivergence within the profession is a good start in terms of raising awareness, and this is something that the Disabled Solicitors Network (DSN) is trying to encourage and foster. The DSN has also developed some great resources, which firms can use to get started. More on these later!
It’s also worth noting that conversations about disability should be holistic i.e. go beyond challenges and barriers, and also acknowledge the many skills and talents that disabled people bring to the workplace.
Lewis: If they want to keep details of their disability confidential is there a way of providing anonymity for staff that may not want everyone to know about their hidden disability?
Reena: I prefer to talk about “non-visible” disabilities, rather than “hidden” disabilities, as “hidden” implies a level of secrecy or something to be ashamed of.
Disability is deeply personal; people have an innate fear of talking about disability as they worry about prejudice and the assumptions that may be made about them by other people. As a result, some people prefer not to talk about their disability in a workplace context. No one should ever feel pressured to discuss their disability, whether the disability is visible or non-visible. If an individual chooses to approach their line manager or HR team to discuss disability or adjustments, they should have complete confidence that those discussions will remain confidential.
Employee networks can be a really valuable safe space within which individuals can talk openly and honestly about their lived experience. Sometimes disabled individuals will feel more confident opening up in that context initially, on the basis that the network is a supportive community.
Saadia: 93% of junior lawyers admit to feeling stressed at work with 1 in 4 feeling stressed daily. What more can be done to stop burnout for up and coming talent in the legal sector?
Reena: Mental health and wellbeing are so important, across all levels of seniority within the profession.
In a workplace context, employees experiencing stress or poor mental health may be unwilling to talk about this, or to access workplace support for mental health. Managers need to be alert and watch out for signs that an individual is struggling, and sensitively signpost them to help and support wherever possible.
We work in a demanding profession, and this can take its toll. So it’s really important that junior lawyers set boundaries in terms of basic self-care – ensuring that they get enough sleep, eat a healthy diet, exercise and maintain personal interests and hobbies. It can be all too easy to get into a cycle of prioritising work over physical and mental wellbeing, especially if you feel like your workload is out of your control, but the reality is that if you don’t look after yourself then you are not going to be able to give your best at work.
Open and honest dialogue about this is important. The more we talk about mental health in the workplace and normalise it, the more senior leaders talk about it, the more it allows others to feel like they are in a safe space to proactively share mental health challenges before those become acute.
For those that are struggling with mental health, stress or burn out, I would recommend contacting LawCare for help and support.
Lewis: When it comes to awareness of disability what are some short term, midterm and long term targets that law firms can or maybe should commit to in furthering support for disability?
Reena: There is no one size fits all approach – it depends on the size of the firm, and the stage that they are at in terms of their disability inclusion journey. But for those firms that are only just starting their disability journey, they may initially want to focus on understanding the needs of their current and future employee base and on identifying barriers and blockers, such as
assessing their workplace adjustments process, accessibility of premises or the inclusiveness of their recruitment processes. They might also want to build disability confidence in their workforce via learning and development programmes, so that managers (and others) feel more confident in having disability-related conversations and feel empowered to be active allies.
And finally they will need to consider what actions they need to take in order to be more disability inclusive. Some actions will be straightforward easy wins, and others will be more complex. Firms will need to be strategic and plan ahead for short-, medium- and long- term objectives based on their priorities. They also need to be mindful of the need to involve their disabled employees when formulating strategies and objectives – “nothing about us without us”.
Lewis: Further to my previous question how will this differ for small law firms and large law firms as there will be a difference in available resources?
Reena: No matter how big or small your firm, in-house team or organisation, you can make a positive change to improve disability inclusion.
But it is important to distinguish between small firms and large firms. Smaller firms may not have the infrastructure, resource or budget that larger firms do. And something that may be a reasonable expectation for a large firm may not be feasible for a smaller firm.
The DSN acknowledges this distinction. We have created Easy wins and action points for disability inclusion, which has separate recommendations for smaller firms and larger firms. These are simply easy wins, questions to get discussions going or starting points for further work, rather than the only actions a firm should be taking. You can access the Easy wins
documents here: Easy wins and action points for disability inclusion | The Law Society.
Saadia: Lastly, I know that you and The Law Society’s Disabled Solicitors Network are doing great work in providing awareness and resources for disability awareness, what are some future projects you have in place and how can people access the resources that you offer?
Reena: You can access all of the tools and resources that the DSN have created on The Law Society website page: Disabled Solicitors Network | The Law Society .
The reasonable adjustments best practice guidance note and the easy wins and action points for disability inclusion are great starting points.
The DSN will imminently launch Project Rise II, an initiative to introduce part time training contracts.
We also intend to publish a tips and tricks document related to assistive technology
Lewis: Thank you Reena for taking the time to answer our questions and providing useful insight and advice on how as a firm we can do better or be supported to address disability at the workplace.