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Disability: legal profession needs fundamental shift towards greater accessibility

Rachel JohnsonThursday 3 March 2022

A new organisation, Bringing [Dis]Ability to the Bar (BDABar), launched in late January with an overall objective ‘to open up and make the Bar [of England and Wales] accessible to all disabled aspiring barristers’.

James Ekin is one of the Founders of BDABar. ‘Our core aim is to make the profession […] an accessible choice of job’, he says. Ekin describes the welcome his organisation has received from the profession: 250 people attended the launch of BDABar.

At present, disabled people face barriers to both entry and progression in the legal profession, and not only in the UK. ‘The spectrum of what needs to change; it’s at every level,’ says Christina Warner, a barrister at Goldsmith Chambers in London.

To address these barriers, it’s vital to acknowledge them. Sebastián Ramos, Co-Chair of the IBA Academic and Professional Development Committee and a partner at Ferrere in Uruguay, says many assume there aren’t any disabled lawyers or law students. This allows the profession to carry on with business as usual. ‘I don’t think most people think about this as an issue’, he says. ‘It’s not that they don’t care; they don’t see it as an issue.’

Physical barriers restrict disabled lawyers’ access to the profession. For example, court buildings and chambers have almost no wheelchair access and lifts frequently break. Technology that should assist disabled lawyers is not well maintained and it can be hard to bring a support worker into courtrooms.

‘The courts just aren’t an accessible place for people with a disability’, says Ekin. Warner agrees, and adds that ‘there’s a lack of understanding of reasonable adjustments that legally need to be made’. Inaccessible court buildings also have implications for access to justice as the same barriers are faced by disabled clients.

There’s a business case for being inclusive because disabled people are very good at problem solving

Daniel Holt
Chair, Association of Disabled Lawyers

Daniel Holt, Chair of the Association of Disabled Lawyers and a future pupil barrister at 39 Essex Chambers, describes the discomfort disabled people feel when having to ask for reasonable adjustments – a legal requirement in England and Wales under the Equality Act 2010 – to be made, particularly during the recruitment process. He argues this discomfort is indicative of an environment that doesn’t seek to include disabled people.

Holt points to other cultural issues that are problematic for disabled lawyers, such as the expectation to work long hours and the implications for promotion when doing so isn’t possible.

Alongside physical barriers to access, the attitude of the profession towards disabled lawyers can be hostile. Warner describes being on the receiving end of comments about her disability that demonstrated the level of ignorance and stigma that still exists both in the profession and in society.

There’s also a limited understanding of the multi-faceted nature of disability: that each disabled person faces challenges and barriers unique to their disability and individual circumstances. ‘We’re all as individual as the challenges presented by our conditions’, says Warner.

Preconceptions about what disabled people are capable of also limit the extent to which the profession can be inclusive. Disabled lawyers have the qualifications and ability to practise the law. The limitations they face are symptomatic of a system that doesn’t strive to include them.

For Ekin, one of the drivers of BDABar is the belief that if an individual has the ability to practise the law, their disability shouldn’t put them at a disadvantage. Warner agrees. ‘The legal profession needs to understand that we’re perfectly capable of doing our jobs’, she says.

Holt says that, through being inaccessible, the profession is missing out on talent and profits. Disabled lawyers will bring a unique skillset to their work honed through their experience of overcoming obstacles.

‘There’s a business case for being inclusive because disabled people are very good at problem solving’, says Holt. Warner agrees and notes that ‘as lawyers, that’s our job. People come to us because they want us to solve their legal problems.’

It seems there needs to be a shift in how the legal profession thinks about disabled lawyers and what they’re capable of. A first step could be to educate and remove stigma through encouraging an atmosphere in which it’s possible for disabled lawyers to be candid about their experiences and the barriers they face. Ekin is keen to avoid sugar coating. He says, ‘the issue at the moment is that people don’t talk, and people are scared to voice their opinion on the issues they face’.

It's important that the voices of disabled lawyers are heard so that appropriate solutions are proposed based on their first-hand experiences. Ekin argues, ‘you can’t make change without consulting the people that go through the problems that you’re trying to change’. BDABar’s philosophy includes the, renowned disability rights statement, ‘nothing about us, without us’, reflecting the need for the voices of disabled people to be central to its vision of a more inclusive profession.

For Ekin, research will be an important part of the path forward. BDABar plans to research fact-based information about changes that can be implemented. This will allow the organisation to present solutions as well as highlighting problems. He also outlines plans for a mentoring programme for aspiring disabled barristers and for talks about how to change the profession.

Notably, remote working at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic has shown that it’s possible for the system to change. Working from home has allowed disabled lawyers to demonstrate their skill in practising the law without facing the barriers to access posed by hostile buildings and attitudes. It’s enabled them to create a space that’s conducive to work and which caters to their specific needs. Ekin worries that these benefits could be lost now that there’s more pressure to return to the office.

‘Now we’re going back to everyone working in the office there needs to be a maintained balance between accessibility and the [individual’s] ability to do the job’, he says.

Ekin and Warner both argue that remote working should be considered as a reasonable adjustment in future. ‘The courts really need to understand that a reasonable adjustment is allowing barristers with disabilities to choose whether their attendance should be remote or in person,’ says Warner, who says the same option should be available to disabled clients.

However, Holt says there’s a risk that disabled lawyers will become isolated if remote working is lent on too heavily. He worries that remote access could become a cop-out for the profession and will deny disabled lawyers the opportunity to network and engage with colleagues in person. ‘If [remote working] becomes the norm or the expectation of disabled lawyers it may end up being exclusionary’, he says.

Image: Disabled young blind woman at workplace. Chansom Pantip/Shutterstock.com

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