Approximately four years ago we began our ‘Legally Disabled?’ journey with the Lawyers with Disabilities Division (LDD) of the Law Society with the aim of creating a more inclusive and accessible legal profession for disabled people.
We conducted research, the findings of which were first launched in January 2020, to understand the experiences, barriers and careers of disabled members of the legal sector. Our findings were then updated in October 2020 to reflect experiences during the pandemic.
Within these findings, securing reasonable adjustments consistently emerged as the most significant barrier for disabled people in the profession.
Despite immense upheaval to working arrangements during the Covid-19 pandemic, over two-thirds of participants of our research said their employer had not reviewed their reasonable adjustments.
In a series of roundtable events held during lockdown, attendees including employers, requested further practical guidance.
In partnership with the LDD and the Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) team at the Law Society, we produced an easy wins guidance for small and large organisations.
These identified potential starting points for the development of disability-friendly policies and practices and offered pointers on how to begin much needed conversations about disability inclusion.
Reasonable adjustments guidance
This week is important because it marks the launch by the Law Society of comprehensive guidance on reasonable adjustments, also co-produced with the LDD and ‘Legally Disabled?’.
It combines our academic data with input from the LDD and impairment specific organisations about the experiences of disabled legal professionals, with examples of good practice being developed in the sector, sourced by the Law Society’s D&I team.
The result is practical guidance for organisations to support disability equality on a day to day basis.
Our research findings suggest that, contrary to common assumptions, disability inclusion is not a minority concern in the profession.
We found 40% of disabled solicitors and paralegals did not identify themselves to employers for fear that they would experience stigma and career disadvantages. This led us to conclude that disabled people as legal professionals have been largely ‘unexpected’. Something that has been reflected in their relative absence in D&I initiatives in the past.
Co-production and cooperation have been key ingredients in the success and outcomes of this project.
Our initial approach was to work with the LDD as a division, to co-produce our research findings so they reflected the priorities of disabled people inside the profession and to build an environment of trust and inclusion.
Many participants told us they had spoken about being disabled for the first time when they talked to us and some have since gone on to become visible and vocal advocates in their workplace or organisation.
Creating a wider evidence base to show that individuals were not alone or isolated in their struggles was important in achieving this.
For us, the most rewarding part of the project has been helping to facilitate debate and new initiatives inside the profession aimed at addressing disability exclusion.
A central aim of the project had always been to provide an evidence base and tools to give disabled people themselves inside the profession the power to self-advocate and to empower them to raise awareness of barriers they face to bring about change.
In the early days, working with the Law Society was not always smooth. Co-production, a method embraced in the disability rights movement by the slogan ‘nothing about us without us’ was not always easily understood.
However, we want to applaud the Law Society for having risen to the challenges posed by our findings and responding with co-operation, vision, and resolve.
Co-production can sometimes mean conceding power and being willing to learn, consult and involve groups in new ways. Long-term leadership and commitment to providing resources has been crucial and we very much hope the relationships created through the production of this guidance will be a foundation for more work.
A straightforward outline of employers’ legal duties, with links to external help, including the Access to Work grant scheme, is signposted.
The guidance also examines common misunderstandings surrounding reasonable adjustments.
Disabled people told us that while most employers understood physical adjustments to work environments – such as the provision of accessible software, communications and assistive technology – adjustments to job roles and genuinely flexible working arrangements were poorly understood.
In discussions with organisations, the Law Society were asked to provide working examples of how such adjustments operate in practice, which this guidance provides.
If we have one take away from this experience it is that building understanding and mutual trust is a long-term process.
Co-production is a slow process, but if done properly and all groups involved are afforded mutual respect the outcomes are more likely to be genuinely owned and enduring.
Download the reasonable adjustments guidance here.
Professor Debbie Foster and Dr Natasha Hirst, research team of the Legally Disabled? project, Cardiff University