The vice-chair of the DisAbility Legal Network has told future solicitors that training is needed at every level, and in every profession, to “unlearn” the sub-conscious and conscious biases facing people with disabilities in the workplace.
Caoimhe Grogan (pictured) was speaking at a lecture on equality, diversity, and inclusion at Blackhall Place last week.
The lecture, organised by Colette Reid, formed part of skills training on the new Professional Practice Course (PPC) for trainee solicitors that started last week.
Grogan, a trainee solicitor at A&L Goodbody LLP, pointed out that, while 13% of people had a disability, only 36% of disabled adults were in work, compared with 72% of the total adult population.
She said that these employment statistics were compounded by negative views, stereotypes, and perceptions of disability that saw people with disabilities as objects of charity, and not equal participants in society.
Grogan stressed that people with disabilities possessed “huge skill-sets”, such as the resilience and innovation that they needed just to navigate the able-bodied world.
“I view it as such an untapped talent pool,” she told the trainee solicitors.
Research on the legal sector in Britain has shown that most people with disabilities do not disclose their status to employers for fear of negative consequences.
Grogan said a survey at a DisAbility Legal Network event had revealed similar findings in Ireland, with 63% saying that they had not told their employer about their disability.
She said that the research had shown that disability was not a minority issue, but that did not transfer into representation of people with disabilities in prominent and successful positions.
“Even after I got my traineeship, I didn’t know any lawyers with disabilities, or who were visually impaired. I felt it was really holding me back mentally,” she stated.
Grogan stressed that disability inclusion was not just the “nice” or “right” thing to do, but that it also made commercial sense for companies and organisations to embed it in their strategies.
Inclusion, she said, could help attract a wider talent pool, and also contribute to firms’ ESG (environmental, social, and governance) strategies that were closely watched by investors.
“Disability drives innovation,” she told the trainees, pointing to notable inventions by those with disabilities – including cruise control, which was invented by a blind person.
Grogan cited research from the US showing that firms that embraced best practice on inclusion performed better financially, with, on average, 28% higher revenue than companies that did not.
‘Social’ model of disability
She said that, when she was growing up, the ‘medical’ model of disability prevailed in her interactions with school, teachers, doctors, and early employers.
This model sees disability as a “substantial restriction” in the capacity of a person to hold down a job and participate in society.
“This definition really sees someone with a disability as someone that needs to be fixed.” Grogan said. This puts the onus on the disabled person to adapt to a society that is not built for them.
In contrast, the ‘social’ model sees disability arising from the interaction of an impairment with the physical and attitudinal barriers that hinder full participation in society on an equal footing.
This model recognises that people with a disability can live successful and happy lives with the right adjustments in place, the Blackhall trainees heard.
“I only truly feel disabled when I’m discriminated against, or when I encounter inaccessible design,” said Grogan.
She also told students that the issue of language could make people uncomfortable.
“The golden rule is to mirror the language the person with a disability is using – you can always ask if you’re not sure,” she said, pointing students to a list of terms on the website of the National Disability Authority.
Research from the Solicitors’ Regulation Authority in Britain has examined what accommodations or adjustments the legal profession can perform to make services more accessible for people with disabilities.
An important point from the research, said Grogan, was to always ask the person what assistance, if any, they required – taking the burden off the person with the disability to always ask for help.
Grogan also spoke about the importance of accessible websites – the use of appropriate fonts, signposting directions to the office, and stating whether the company had experience in providing adjustments.
The most important factor, however, in determining satisfaction with a service was the attitude of the staff the clients encountered.
“A flexible, warm, open-minded approach will go a long way,” she said.