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DisAbility Legal Network

17 May 2022 / employment Print

Locked doors of perception

The DisAbility Legal Network held a recent seminar in which participants discussed the key elements that contribute to the creation of an equitable, diverse, and inclusive work culture. Mary Hallissey reports

The DisAbility Legal Network held an information seminar for more than 100 in-person and virtual attendees on fostering a disability-inclusive culture in the Irish legal sector (hosted by William Fry LLP at their Dublin office on 29 March).

Jane Barrett (chair of DisAbility Legal Network, and a William Fry associate) told the event that the genesis for setting up the network was the realisation that Ireland had no suitable support structure.

Having discovered the Lawyers with Disabilities Division, connected to the Law Society of England and Wales, she said: “I thought a network where people were open about their disabilities would be really beneficial for people.”

With the assistance of the Law Society of Ireland, an initial meeting gathered together interested parties. The group agreed that a network should be established outside of the professions, similar to the OUTlaw Network for the LGBTQ+ community in the legal sector.

Promoting accessibility

At the first meeting of the new network’s steering committee, the goals of making disability more visible, promoting accessibility within the legal sector, and offering networking opportunities were laid out.

Various forms of disability, both visible and invisible, were listed – for example, neurodiversity (including dyslexia), chronic illness, and mental-health conditions – in order to emphasise how broad is the term ‘disability’.

A straw poll of whether those with disabilities had shared their health status with employers revealed that 63% had not done so.


Niamh Fawl (senior standards and monitoring officer with the National Disability Authority) was the keynote speaker at the seminar.

The NDA is the independent State body providing evidence-informed advice on disability policy and practice to the Government, and promoting ‘universal design’ in Ireland. In this capacity, the NDA provides advice and guidance to public and private-sector employers to create equitable, diverse and inclusive (EDI) work cultures that:

  • Attract, retain, and progress the careers of persons with disabilities, and
  • Support employees to feel comfortable sharing their disability status.

The NDA also advises employ-ers on how to create EDI work cultures using a universal-design approach, so that main-stream products, services, communications (digital, written, spoken and signed), public spaces, and the built environment are easy to access, understand, and use for everyone – regardless of age, size, ability or disability.

Under part 5 of the Disability Act 2005, the NDA monitors the progress that the public sector is making in promoting the recruitment and retention of people with disabilities, and ensuring that a minimum of 3% of their employees are people with disabilities.

The minimum statutory employment target for those with disabilities is currently 3%, increasing to 6% in 2024. Legislation to place this increase on a statutory basis is likely to be enacted before the end of 2022.

Visible representatives

Fawl advised that there were a number of key elements that contributed to the creation of an EDI culture, which increased the recruitment and retention of persons with disabilities and supported employees to feel comfortable in sharing their disability status.

Commitment from CEOs, directors, and senior management to creating an EDI work culture was an essential element – and this commitment should be communicated through an organisation’s HR/corporate strategy policies and procedures.

Some of the other key elements included the appointment of persons with disabilities as visible representatives to internal advisory groups that informed the development and evaluation of policies and processes. Their expertise and lived experience of disability could enhance and drive an organisation’s EDI agenda.

Organisations should have inclusive recruitment policies, Niamh Fawl said. It was also important that they had clear policies and procedures on career progression for all employees – including employees with disabilities – as this could be a key factor in employee retention.

Reservations on disclosure

Panel member Elaine Cahill qualified as a solicitor in 2007, and now works for the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission. She told the gathering that, as a person with visual disability, she often had reservations over whether to disclose this to employers.

“I am registered blind,” Elaine said, adding that her first challenges were when she studied at UCD during the early 1990s, where staff expressed reservations about a visually-impaired student studying a reading-intensive course such as law.

“One of the biggest challenges I faced was the perception that, because you have an eyesight problem, you cannot read, or cannot read a lot,” she stated.

Elaine employs active-reading techniques, absorbing information quickly, and added that advances since her university days have helped, since most material was now available digitally.

“Throughout my career, in some past positions, I’ve declared my disability; while in others, I haven’t,” she said, adding that her ability to do the job had never been hindered by her disability.

She believes that the perception that stronger employee protection exists in the public sector may make it easier for people to disclose a disability to such employers, as they feel safer in doing so.

She added that there was often a designated disability liaison officer in the public sector, so a person to speak to was clearly identified. She agreed that the private sector could learn from this approach.

“Everybody’s disability is different,” she said – with differing needs as a result. “It’s an individualised thing, and that’s where both the organisation and the person themselves need to have a conversation about what’s appropriate for them.”

Biggest barrier

Barrister Martin Gordon, who is also visually-impaired, said that perception was always the biggest barrier he encountered – and that this influenced attitudes.

“If we can change the perception, we can change the attitude,” he said.

“See the ability and not the disability of a person,” Elaine Cahill said. “Those with disabilities have enormous levels of skills, and have the ability to do their job, but may have slightly different things they have to do to accomplish their job. That doesn’t mean they should be overlooked for a promotion” she added.

 “Dialogue is important. If someone has declared, and if an employer has a query about the person or any accommodation they may need to assist, then have the conversation,” she urged. “Usually it’s easily responded to – people want to show their full potential.”

But those with a disability must feel comfortable to disclose and discuss their specific needs openly with their employer, she pointed out.

Personal question

Fawl said that employers might have difficulty reaching the 3% target because, for various reasons, employees with a disability might not be willing to share their status.

Staff turnover was also a factor in reaching that target, she added.

Cahill said that, on balance, she would encourage disclosure, though it was a difficult and personal question: “I see it as a positive step – being able to articulate what you need. It helps your employer support you in doing your job,” she said.

But this step should only be taken if the person felt safe, and sure that declaring would not have a negative impact.

Read and print a PDF of this article here.

Mary Hallissey
Mary Hallissey is a journalist at Gazette.ie