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Understanding disabilities in the workplace

Jonathan Andrews and Yasmin Sheikh say employers can attract excellent staff by making important changes.

While studying English at King’s College London, Jonathan Andrews decided to pursue a career in law. Having been diagnosed with autism at the age of nine, Jonathan attended an event during university about inclusion within the workplace, which to draw attention to the different types of barriers in place for individuals with disabilities. “I noticed at the event that there wasn’t really anyone else on the autism spectrum present”, Jonathan explains, “and this caused me to briefly worry that neurodiverse individuals wouldn’t be as welcome in the legal profession.” However, he took this as a sign to start raising awareness himself, with the ultimate aim of removing the barriers in place for neurodiverse individuals.

According to Jonathan, one of the most effective ways to introduce diversity and inclusion in a workplace is to start the conversation. Talking openly about disabilities can dispel misconceptions, and he notes how only a few years ago there was a lack of understanding of how autism actually affects individuals. “There was an assumption that autistic individuals are low-achieving and there was also a complete lack of appreciation of the diversity of the autistic spectrum”, he says. Although Jonathan doesn’t think people should have to announce a part of their identity in their workplace if they don’t want to, he also believes that people shouldn’t be scared to do so. By raising awareness of the nuances of autism, it can be recognised as a strength and appreciated for the value it brings organisations. This, in turn, can help people accept their neurodiversity. “Every individual should feel comfortable at work and not feel at all held back by a part of their identity,” he remarks.

As an associate in Reed Smith’s entertainment and media team, Jonathan finds that his own neurodiversity has been an asset “in terms of bringing a new perspective to the table”. These different perspectives can be useful in areas of law such as litigation, he notes, as well as helping clients improve their own diversity. “When I was on secondment, I could help the company by being a part of their own diversity panel and advising them from a neurodiverse perspective”, he explains. “If I hadn’t been open about my differences, I would never have been asked to do that.”

Although neurodiversity is increasingly being recognised as an asset in the legal profession, one of the main barriers neurodivergent individuals still face is the rigorous application process for training contracts. Not only can the traditional forms of interviewing put people on the autistic spectrum at a disadvantage, but psychometric testing, has been proven to be an unfair assessment for neurodivergent people as the results often don’t correlate with their job performance. However, some law firms, such as Reed Smith, are starting to correct this process by discarding psychometric testing and implementing adjustments for people with disabilities, such as “the opportunity to go to the office before the interview in order to acquaint oneself with it”. Jonathan hopes to see every firm do the same - and with his impressive campaigning credentials it’s likely that he will be spearheading such change.

Setting up a consultancy which advises on disabilities and diversity wasn’t always on the table for alumna and recent Honorary Doctorate, Yasmin Sheikh. While working as a personal injury solicitor in Clyde & Co, in 2008 Yasmin experienced what one neurologist called “a spinal stroke”, which resulted in a physical disability. When she returned to work, the experiences she had with her colleagues inspired her to establish the consultancy. “My experience with one of my bosses showed me that there was a lot of work to be done in terms of understanding disabilities and disability inclusion in the workplace”, Yasmin explains. “However, I also had a really good boss who saw that I was very passionate about the subject, and he supported me setting up a disability network at work, which eventually inspired me to set up the consultancy.”

After noticing that many law firms were not considering disabilities when implementing their diversity and inclusion strategy, Yasmin saw a gap in the market. By offering bespoke training to human resources managers and line managers, Diverse Matters aims to improve disability inclusion in the workplace. “The type of training we offer depends on where the client is with their disability inclusion, however our general training involves myth-busting and explaining microaggressions or unintentional comments which can make people feel uncomfortable and excluded”, she says. Just talking about disabilities, she notes, is one of the most effective ways to improve inclusion.

The Legally Disabled research reports, which explored the career experiences of disabled people in the legal profession in England and Wales, says that disabled people feel excluded in diversity outreach - this can only change if we talk about it.” The Legally Disabled research project, led by disabled researchers, shone a light on the career experiences of disabled legal professionals. “The pandemic-specific research has found that pre-pandemic the most requested and refused adjustment was working from home”, she comments, “but now that it is a mainstream concern it has enabled those with disabilities to demand remote working when possible.” According to Yasmin, the flexibility and freedom this grants lawyers with disabilities can help them fit into the firm better. “One of the unexpected aspects of the pandemic has been the radical humanisation of the workforce”, she reflects, “and that is inspiring us to create a more inclusive legal profession which accounts for the different challenges people face outside of work.”

As a result of the Legally Disabled research, ‘Project Rise’ has been initiated by the Law Society’s Lawyers with Disabilities Division; a scheme which aims to introduce part-time training contracts. By taking on part-time trainees, law firms are widening their talent pool to recruit people who cannot work full-time for various reasons, such as living with a disability. “It’s ground-breaking”, says Yasmin, “I never imagined we would be having this conversation about part-time training contracts.” With international law firms such as Eversheds Sutherland and Osbourne Clarke among those taking part in the project, the future looks bright for disability inclusion. This vital work was one of several reasons we recently awarded Yasmin an Honorary Doctorate at our recent graduation ceremony.

 

This article was first published in our Verdict magazine – Read our Equality, Diversion & Inclusion Special now.