As a wheelchair-user, there are many barriers that arise on a daily basis, including inaccessible buildings, poor footpath-kerb design, steps, and lack of accessible transport. More particularly, however, negative attitudes and perceptions or attitudinal barriers towards people with disabilities are still apparent.
“We need to have honest conversations and challenge our own biases and perceptions,” Aisling says. Living with a disability can be challenging. It requires resourcefulness, determination and problem-solving.
“On a positive note,” she says, “these are skills that can be particularly useful to a solicitor!”
Aisling credits her teacher mother with steering her towards the modern and easily accessible campus at the University of Limerick when she expressed a desire to study law.
Her mother had the foresight to think ahead about practical difficulties, once Aisling’s life began to change with the onset of a rare neuro-muscular condition in her teens.
That scary diagnosis – at 15 and in junior cert year – was a life-changing event.
“I realised that my physical abilities were going to change, so I had to start focusing on what I could do,” Aisling reflects, adding that studying gave her a focus that distracted from the enormity of what was happening.
“I had fallen and broken my leg the summer after Leaving Cert, and it meant that I needed a wheelchair, and more help and support. I would have stayed at home and commuted to college, because the thought of moving away was daunting, but my parents wanted me to have the same opportunities and experiences as my sisters.”
Living with a disability makes you appreciate the little things, she says. “Of course, it’s not always easy, but giving up or feeling sorry for yourself isn’t the solution. I try not to worry about the future or what’s ahead, because I have no control over it. I prefer to focus on each day and on what I can do,” she says.
As a wheelchair-user, Aisling is reliant on others. But at her solicitor’s desk, she feels independent, self-reliant, and free. She is adamant that she doesn’t want to be defined by her disability. “When I’m busy at my desk I’m least aware of my disability,” she says. “I want to focus on my abilities and on what I can do.”
Fire and water
“When I began using a wheelchair, the world changed around me. Apart from the more obvious physical challenges I faced, what I found most difficult was that some people looked at me differently and treated me differently.
“There can be an awkwardness. I think sometimes people view a wheelchair as a symbol of inability or incapacity. In fact, it allows me to function, to go to college, and to go to work.
“We need to focus on people and on their abilities. People have asked me: ‘But how did you become a solicitor with the wheelchair?’ Someone else said: ‘Weren’t they very good to give you a job with the wheelchair’.”
Aisling wants to challenge those negative perceptions and underlying prejudices.
But there have been funny moments, too. “One day, I went to get my hair cut during lunch. While there, someone asked me what disability facility I lived in. An hour later, I was back at my office drafting a will. The client said to me: ‘I suppose you play a lot of golf?’ The difference was: one saw the wheelchair, the other didn’t.”
In court, judges or other solicitors have sometimes presumed that Aisling was the plaintiff but, on the whole, her experience over the last ten years in practice has been very positive.
On my way
At UL (where she studied law, German and sociology), Aisling lived in a brand-new on-campus apartment, with all amenities to hand.
Perhaps the process of becoming a solicitor was more challenging for Aisling as a wheelchair-user, but she appears to bat away obstacles with a combination of grit and good humour.
With disability, there’s a lot of planning and organising involved in everyday life, she says. “There are obstacles and challenges, on a daily basis, that arise from not being able to do the things I could once do for myself. People don’t see the small things, such as not being able to open a door or make a cup of coffee.
"There is a reality to disability, and it does affect your choices.” It is a reminder that, for those with a disability, practical issues are a key factor in accessing education and employment.
Aisling’s PPC stint (in the Law Society’s school at that time in Cork city) was fortuitous, in that the building was streamlined and easily navigable – a city-centre venue with lifts and wheelchair-accessible toilet facilities. “It was a really positive experience. Some of the best friends I have now are the gang I met there in Cork.”
Qualified since 2008, Aisling’s work life is an extremely busy blend of general practice strands, including personal-injuries litigation, wills and probate, Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) employment and equality law cases, enduring powers of attorney, and complex litigation matters.
She is a key member of the team at her west Clare employers, McMahon & Williams Solicitors. After four years in practice, the firm supported Aisling’s decision to specialise with a master’s in international disability law and policy from NUI Galway, which involved travelling to campus one day a week and combining work with intensive study.
Aisling describes her employers as incredibly supportive. “With my own personal experience, I had a particular interest and wanted specialist knowledge in the area of disability law,” she says.
NUI Galway’s law school also runs a disability legal information clinic, where Aisling volunteered. While she was there, a case came in concerning a child with a physical disability being denied his right to continue his primary education because he required an assistance dog. Aisling took on the case pro bono, with the support of her employers, and wrote her thesis on the matter: “I wanted to see if I could use the law to effect real change,” she says.
Little bit of love
Living with a disability had given her direct experience of the barriers that disabled people face every day – in accessing work, education, transport, and healthcare, as well as attitudinal barriers. The case took over four years, but was ultimately successful, and the boy was allowed to bring his assistance dog to school.
“Working to vindicate this young boy’s rights was a very rewarding experience,” she says. “Having a disability myself, I was lucky to have had access to education, so it was something that I felt very strongly about.”
The case took long hours of Aisling’s time, freely given – but it led to her being given an assistance dog from the charity Dogs for the Disabled.
“It was an added bonus six months later for Gina to come my way.”
Gina is a labradoodle that comes to work with Aisling and helps with practical matters, such as opening door handles, pressing the elevator button with her nose, picking up dropped items, and so forth.
“She is wonderful!” says Aisling, who relishes getting out and taking some fresh sea air every day with Gina, who is very popular with staff and clients!
Aisling has subsequently taken disability and discrimination cases, though she points out that, in the WRC, there are no costs awards. “It’s prohibitive for a lot of people, because there is no legal aid in this area.”
Though legal practice appealed to her as a student, Aisling figured that she might pursue a PhD, simply because the UL campus was so accessible and convenient. “I was a bit nervous due to my disability. If I’m being honest, I did wonder if practice was a realistic option. My disability had progressed during those years, and I lost the ability to walk. I became very comfortable in those UL surroundings.”
She credits her ‘start’ to local solicitor and current colleague Joe Chambers, who offered her a summer internship. “That’s when I thought: ‘This is what I really want to do’, so I went and got the FE1 manuals. Then the focus was on Blackhall and finding a traineeship. I was very fortunate in finding one locally, though it was 2008 and things were starting to change, economically.
“I will always be grateful to Joe for that chance meeting on the street, and for giving me the opportunity to realise what I really wanted to do,” she says. “Ten years later, I’m still working where I started in McMahon & Williams, and I will always be grateful to principal Gearóid Williams and to my now-colleagues and friends Ciara and Sinead, who interviewed me.”
McMahon & Williams was awarded ‘diversity and inclusion law firm of the year’ in 2019. Principal Gearóid is treasurer of the Kilrush St Vincent de Paul Society, and Aisling is the chair of the West Clare Mental Health Association, and sits on the board of the National Disability Authority.
“There is genuinely nowhere else I’d rather be working or living,” says Aisling of Kilrush. There is a great sense of community, and she meets legal colleagues often, for walks and lunch.
Let me show you
As a wheelchair-user, everything Aisling does has to be planned in advance, and her decisions are often dictated by what is accessible. For instance, when Aisling travels to Dublin on legal business or to board meetings, there is only one accommodation facility that is suitable to her needs.
This involves a lot of organising, in terms of arranging transport from West Clare to Limerick train station, ramps to access the train, wheelchair-accessible taxis when in Dublin, and the various aids and appliances that are part of everyday life.
She manages her commitments thanks to lots of support, which starts at home with her parents and sisters, and extends to her friends and colleagues. Accessibility is improving in court and official buildings, she says, “but we have a long way to go”. Some courthouses are still inaccessible, and lifts can break down.
“There’s always a sense of relief when I see a ramp, but there are courthouses with ramps outside, then steps inside to access individual courtrooms. Court can be stressful in itself, and having to consider accessibility adds an extra layer of stress.”
All right now
However, the COVID pandemic has highlighted the benefits and opportunities that remote working can provide for people with disabilities. Virtual meetings bypass the transport problem and, with 71% unemployment among those with disabilities in Ireland, remote working has the potential to bring about real change.
Digital tools have also made life easier. Aisling can dictate through her mobile phone, make calls through headphones, and use a talk-to-type dictation system. Online case management allows virtually paper-free work, and avoids cumbersome physical files.
“We have embraced technology and social media and, while it’s important to have an online presence, in West Clare, word-of-mouth is as relevant today as when I started – and is still the most effective marketing tool.”
While technology has brought many benefits, it has its disadvantages: “When I started ten years ago, you would send a letter and put a file away, knowing that you wouldn’t hear back for a few days at least. Now we are sending letters by email and replies can come within minutes or hours. It can be difficult to strike the balance between keeping people updated and spending valuable time on trying to reply to numerous emails when it might not always be necessary.”
High up on Aisling’s wish-list is to see an inclusive and diverse legal profession that reflects the clients, and the communities in which it operates. Reflecting on what she has discovered during her time in law, Aisling says: “I’m lucky to have learned from Gearóid. He is a brilliant lawyer, with honesty and integrity. I’ve learned to always try and work with colleagues, as opposed to against them.”
Her parting advice to fellow practitioners: “Treat your colleagues as you would like to be treated. Also, pick up that file you’ve been avoiding – it’s never as bad as you think!”
Read and print a PDF of this article here.
Mary Hallissey is a journalist with the Law Society Gazette