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A little while ago, I applied for a paralegal role at a renowned multinational firm. I requested reasonable adjustments to help me show my best and work around things that I can find challenging. Nothing onerous, but helpful all the same.
After a back and forth as to why I needed them, I was denied them. The reason given was that it would “put me at an unfair advantage over the other candidates”.
Needless to say, I was upset. Both at the ignorance of it, and that by refusing my request for help so I could show my best my challenges and experiences were, essentially, invalidated.
Safe to say, I won’t be applying to that firm again!
Reasonable adjustments are important to disabled applicants, whether that disability is visible or not. We already start off at an unfair disadvantage due to structural and societal barriers in our way, so these adjustments help us access the support we need to be at our best. They help to level the playing field and mitigate the disadvantage that we are at, and they can also help employers see more candidates at their best.
But, as it turns out, these reasonable adjustments don’t just help disabled workers. The entire team, or even the whole firm, can benefit from them too.
Head to our Diversity hub for information on diversity and inclusion in the legal profession.
If an applicant discloses they're disabled (because they meet the criteria of the term under the Equality Act 2010), there's a legal duty on the employer under s20 to make reasonable adjustments to the workplace, its processes and physical space. These adjustments must either change a physical feature, change a process or procedure, or offer applicants aids with which to work around an obstacle or barrier
It is the employer who decides what is 'reasonable', which is why I personally prefer the term 'necessary adjustments' as there's too much power with the employer as to what they deem as reasonable and whether they choose to grant them or not. But that’s a different conversation entirely.
Regardless, the duty is on the employer to make those adjustments so that the employee is not unfairly disadvantaged compared to their colleagues.
What works for one can work for others
What works for a disabled employee can work for other staff too. This goes far beyond the legal duty and into the realms of positive workplace culture.
I attended an event in London hosted by the Lawyers with Disabilities Division (LDD) of the Law Society with my colleagues at LCN. We met a trainee who is blind and uses text-to-speech software to read pieces of documents. After colleagues asked senior management if they could try using the same software to see if it could help them too, those colleagues were flying through their work with no loss of quality. Work turnover increased which meant higher billing and more clients approaching the firm for services.
Because the workplace was made more accessible for a disabled member of staff, everyone thrived with this measure, including the firm.
As a neurodivergent worker, clear instructions and unambiguous language are what I need in order to work at my best. But this can benefit all staff too. Clarity of instructions and clarity of language will help anyone and everyone!
There's more about entering the legal profession with a disability in this Oracle: 'How accessible is the legal profession for lawyers with disabilities?'.
Excluding brilliant employees
When we're supported and included, disabled staff are able to bring real diversity of skills, strengths, perspectives, ways of approaching work, and everyone can learn so much from us too. When we have what we need from our workplaces, we aren’t just getting by, we’re motoring!
Looking at neurodivergent staff, for example, cognitive diversity is a huge asset to any employer as it can mean creative problem solving and novel solutions, fewer meetings are needed, and we can find ways to make processes more efficient for clients and colleagues.
Employers who see these necessary adjustments for disabled workers as being 'added extras' at the recruitment stage will exclude the applicants who need them at that stage in order to show you their best because of the obstacles that are in our way simply because we are disabled. And chances are that if we’re met with that attitude at the recruitment stage, then we won’t have faith that we would be granted what we need in order to work at our best should we be offered the role.
I wouldn’t accept it if my future employer isn’t willing to put them in place for me!
Phil writes more about how firms can support neurodiverse employees in the workplace and through recruitment in this Blog post.
Access is equality
Or it certainly goes a long way towards it!
Disabled people are unfairly disadvantaged in work and in life because of societal barriers that make it difficult to access the same experiences as non-disabled people. Think of it like a restaurant not having a ramp so wheelchair users can’t enter and have the same experience as non-physically disabled people. That ramp isn’t an 'added extra'; it's a necessary feature for greater access.
Progress has been made over the years in our profession, but disabled workers still face systemic barriers and other structural obstacles to us unlocking what we need from workplaces and society. What is needed here is greater accessibility. There isn't a 'one size fits all' approach that can be taken, and it's important for employers to understand that they'll need to adapt their processes and physical workplaces in order to include disabled workers and in order for disabled workers to be able to show and bring our best.
Accessibility for workplaces for disabled lawyers needs to be taken seriously at all stages of the employment journey if employers want to attract the best talent possible. They may very well find that the best talent happens to be disabled talent and that disabled talent can bring much more than just works skills. We could identify and solve problems employers didn’t know existed, could help streamline internal processes, and bring a great deal of empathy and understanding to an otherwise uber-competitive profession that needs its members to be healthy and well to be at their best for their employer.