A DisAbility Legal Network event at the Clayton Hotel in Dublin 2 this morning (29 November) heard that the growing shift towards remote work had been a 'game-changer' for people with disabilities.
Full inclusion in the workforce was everybody's business, and not just those with a disability, the seminar heard.
The A&L Goodbody-organized event, entitled 'The future of hybrid work: opportunities and challenges for people with disabilities in the legal sector', heard from ALG trainee Caoimhe Grogan who said that, prior to COVID, worker requests for "reasonable accommodation" were commonly refused.
But employers have had to adapt, and research has found, that remote, part-time and hybrid contracts are essential for the inclusion, advancement, and retention of people with disabilities in the legal sector, regardless of seniority.
"The overarching reason for disability inclusion is not that it's a nice thing to do; it's the right thing to do," she said, adding that there was a clear business rationale for disability inclusion in terms of financial performance and attracting talent."
Researcher Joan O'Donnell told the attendees that Irish employment levels for people with disabilities were one of the lowest in Europe, at 37%.
The ESRI made a very strong link between work status and poverty, O'Donnell said.
"The role of employers is absolutely key to turning this around," she said, as if it was a recognition that the world of work was in constant flux.
Staff with disabilities had higher retention rates, lower absenteeism, and higher productivity, she added.
The presence of a disabled person on staff also enhanced the attractiveness of a firm to clients, O'Donnell said.
"That's because when your clients look at you, they see themselves reflected in your workforce.
"We must remember that over 614,000 people in Ireland have a disability - that's 13.5% of the population," she said.
The numbers of children being diagnosed with an illness or disability had risen by 13% in the last ten years alone, O'Donnell added.
Having a disability was simply part of the human condition and touched many of our lives in one way or another, she added.
Technology now allows greater autonomy and the flexibility for employers to make reasonable accommodation, O'Donnell stated.
The pandemic also allowed those with disabilities to feel a little bit more connected to their organizations, using technology, she said.
Colleagues also got a greater insight into each other's lives, the researcher added.
O'Donnell's research also showed that the purpose of work was reaffirmed, for both employers and employees, during the pandemic.
"Staying connected was important - not just to support mental health, but also to support a sense of belonging and of being part of something bigger than ourselves," she said.
Working towards a common purpose and having a shared work identity made inclusion and diversity a lot easier, O'Donnell commented.
However, while employers may want more visibility for those with disabilities in their workplaces, they may lack the confidence to recruit such staff.
Changing this will involve rethinking the emerging world of work, and managers must be enabled to access policies and supports.
There was also a misconception that providing accessible and assistive technology was prohibitively expensive, when this was not actually the case, O'Donnell added.
She said that employers should turn the lens on their own organizations, and speak to people with disabilities, rather than bringing in external expertise.
Dr Patricia McCarthy of Trinity College said: “Success is when there is a culture in place that enables disabled people to feel confident to openly discuss their Reasonable Accommodation and to know that these will be implemented in an authentic manner.
“Organisations need to appreciate that proactively accommodating the needs of disabled employees promotes equity for all in the workplace”.
William Fry associate solicitor Jane Barrett said that the pandemic had given her the option to work at home in a way that had been transformative in terms of managing chronic pain and having adequate rest periods.
Barrett added that she was currently doing a Law Society course completely online, which she had found "really beneficial".
Prior to the pandemic, the solicitor had been considering whether she would be able to continue with full-time work.
These factors added to the disability pay gap, she said, and would impede career progress.
Barrett concluded by expressing the hope that the legal sector would employ more people with disabilities in a way that they could work efficiently and effectively, while being able to progress their careers.
In this way, senior legal leaders with a disability could provide a role model for more junior people in the future, she said.