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‘Declare a disability if you feel safe doing so’
Pic: Fennell Photography

01 Apr 2022 / employment Print

‘Declare a disability if you feel safe doing so’

William Fry LLP hosted a seminar for more than 100 in-person and virtual attendees on fostering a disability-inclusive culture in the Irish legal sector at its Dublin office this week (29 March).

Jane Barrett (Chairperson of DisAbility Legal Network and William Fry Associate, pictured) told the event that the genesis for setting up the DisAbility Legal Network was the realisation that Ireland had no support structure akin to that available from the Law Society of England and Wales.

“I thought a network where people were open about their disabilities would be really beneficial for people,” she told the event.

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

Promoting accessibility

At the first meeting of the Steering Committee for the new network, the goals of making disability more visible, and promoting accessibility within the legal sector – as well as offering networking opportunities – were set out.

Jane thanked “fantastic allies” William Fry for assistance in setting up the website, and listed various forms of disability, both visible and invisible, such as neuro-diversity (including dyslexia), chronic illness, and mental-health conditions, in order to emphasise how broad the term "disability" was.

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

Targets

Niamh Fawl (Senior Standards and Monitoring Officer with the National Disability Authority) was the keynote speaker for the event. 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-sector and private-sector employers to create Equitable Diverse and Inclusive (EDI) work cultures that:

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

The NDA also advises employers on how to create EDI work cultures using a Universal Design approach, so that mainstream 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 the public sector is making in promoting the recruitment and retention of persons with disabilities, and ensuring that a minimum of 3% of their employees are persons with disabilities.

The minimum statutory employment target for persons 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

Niamh advised that there were a number of key elements that could contribute to the creation of an EDI culture that increased the recruitment and retention of persons with disabilities, and supported employees to feel comfortable 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 strategies, 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

One of the panel members, 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 back in 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 had helped, as 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 their employers, as they feel safer doing so.

Elaine added that there was often a designated disability-liaison officer in the public sector, so a person to speak to was clearly identified, and 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.” she added.

Perception

Barrister Martin Gordon, who is also visually impaired, said that perception was always the biggest barrier he encountered, and that perception 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 – and 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", Elaine Cahill said.

“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, 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.

'A personal question'

Niamh 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 said.

Elaine 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 feels safe, and sure that declaring will not have a negative impact.

Gazette Desk
Gazette.ie is the daily legal news site of the Law Society of Ireland