New study reveals everyday barriers facing disabled lawyers

Disabled people working in the legal profession face a culture and practices that hamper efforts to build successful careers, a study concludes.

The research by Cardiff University academics draws on focus groups, interviews and surveys with solicitors, barristers, trainees and paralegals from across the UK. It was commissioned by DRILL (Disability Research on Independent Living and Learning), a £5 million research programme led by disabled people. Researchers also worked with the Lawyers with Disabilities Division of the Law Society.

Findings reveal many participants – drawn from across the legal profession – hide their disability when applying for training places or jobs. They also encounter hostility and discrimination at work – including when seeking the ‘reasonable adjustments’ to their working environment or practice they are entitled to under the law.

More than half (54%) of disabled solicitors and paralegals involved in the study thought their career and promotion prospects inferior to their non-disabled colleagues. Some 40% either never or only sometimes tell their employer or prospective employer they are disabled. Just 8.5% of respondents who were disabled when they started their training disclosed their disability in their application.

Academics say this concern at the likely response to their disability means many legal professionals do not seek the reasonable adjustments they are entitled to under the law.

Professor Debbie Foster, of Cardiff Business School, said: “Line managers and supervisors play a pivotal role in the reasonable adjustment process and in the management of sickness absence, performance management and promotion. However, we found the quality of the relationship between line managers and disabled employees often depended on ‘good will’, ‘luck’ or personality rather than a good understanding and professional training.”

Sue Bott from DRILL added: “That is clearly an unsatisfactory situation in 2020 – nearly a quarter of a century after the Disability Discrimination Act first guaranteed the right to reasonable adjustments in the workplace.”

Some 60% of solicitors and paralegals said inaccessible working environments limited their career opportunities, while 85% reported pain and fatigue associated with their disability that could be made worse by inflexible working arrangements and long hours.

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