Hear me out: accessing the legal profession as a deaf, young professional
With online video interviews the new normal, Eleanor Shaw reflects on how the legal sector can be more accessible for deaf and disabled job applicants.
Embarking on a legal career is difficult enough for any young professional, but more so when – like me – you’re deaf*.
*For the purpose of this article, ‘deaf’ refers to anyone who sits on the deafness spectrum identifying as: culturally Deaf, not culturally deaf, hard of hearing, or another description.
Telephone interviews are impossible, online interviews often aren’t captioned; the list goes on.
Whilst applying to jobs in policy reform, I thought that that this sector would likely be more accommodating and inclusive than other legal areas, given that it serves to make people’s lives easier.
However, as my job search drew on, I realised that provision of reasonable adjustments at interviews vary between companies.
Some organisations were amazing at accommodating my needs for interviews; they were understanding and patient, made allowances for any necessary repetition, and some provided captioned interviews too.
However, it’s not uncommon (in my experience) for employers to not provide any of this.
Additionally, deafness is a vast spectrum, and not all deaf people are deemed disabled. For deaf candidates to get these necessary adjustments in the recruitment process, they must tick the disability box on application forms.
When I’ve previously asked for captions and not been provided with them, it makes me feel unwelcome as a candidate because my difference is clearly perceived as something negative.
Another example is companies who invite questions about vacancies, but only provide a contact phone number.
These are discriminatory barriers that prevent deaf candidates from accessing job opportunities.
Lack of accessibility
These barriers to work affect disabled people both mentally and financially.
There’s a higher rate of mental health problems in the disabled community, and these can be exacerbated by financial worries.
Not earning money can be especially worrying for disabled people, as they typically face extra costs of £583 a month to fund medication and adaptive aids.
Deaf and disabled people are “almost twice as likely to be unemployed as non-disabled people”, and there have been calls for greater flexibility from employers to help tackle the growing problem of disability poverty.
Not earning because employers won’t give a deaf person a chance is something I’ve certainly struggled with.
The lack of accessibility worsened my pre-existing anxiety and depression, whilst the financial impact resulted in my parents lending money to cover my multiple prescription medications – as I did not qualify for claiming benefits, and despite my stringent saving.
A lot to offer the legal profession
Being a young, deaf, chronically ill female seems to make my applications undesirable.
Attitudes towards deaf and disabled people as ‘burdens’ need to be eradicated.
As many people focus on the ‘negatives’ of disability the positives they offer are often ignored.
Deaf people have much to offer the legal – and any – profession. For example, the police use lipreaders to obtain speech transcripts from CCTV, highlighting unique skills relied upon by others to benefit the justice system.
Furthermore, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) stated the need for new guidelines to make service operators deaf-aware after “research showed that legal services were often inaccessible to people with hearing loss.”
However, the SRA hasn’t addressed this since 2012, demonstrating the lack of accessibility that potentially remains.
How the legal sector can help
Modern technology is one way of helping the legal sector become more accessible.
As communication through video platforms has drastically increased, there is a greater need to make this more inclusive.
From personal experience, I know there is some awareness already; some interviewers were willing to move online interviews to captioned platforms, but most interviewers were unsure how to accommodate deaf candidates.
The role of meeting platforms
While attitudes require improvement, admittedly the platforms do also.
For instance, Skype and Google Meet allow users to switch on subtitles, but Microsoft Teams has captions that only work if they are host-enabled, and Zoom currently has no caption feature at all.
Differences between platforms make some inaccessible, and whilst the platforms need to improve, the legal profession can help by using the ones that do have captions for deaf people.
Additionally, there are assistive accreditations that can help deaf individuals access the legal sector.
Namely, the Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID) provides a Louder than Words™ accreditation to help workplaces become more deaf-friendly through awareness training and practical support options.
Winn Solicitors have paved the way here, becoming the first law firm to obtain Louder than Words™ accreditation and become deaf-inclusive.
The legal sector can also assist deaf people by utilising the law itself. 18 years after it became an officially recognised language in the UK, British Sign Language (BSL) still isn’t legally protected.
This was a prominent issue during the government’s pandemic briefings, resulting in the #WhereIsTheInterpreter online movement and judicial review.
Legal protection would mean that BSL users are able to access information like everyone else can.
The law should be changed to legally protect BSL and the legal profession should lobby for change to improve accessibility.
Additionally, the Disability Confident employer scheme, which allows disabled jobseekers to apply without discrimination, is an instrument for good.
The downside is that the scheme is voluntary, meaning many disabled jobseekers are left vulnerable to organisations’ optional approach to equality.
If the scheme stays non-mandatory, such never-ending vicious cycles will not be broken and disability inequality will remain.
Whilst some employers in the legal profession already advertise themselves as Disability Confident, those who don’t could start by signing up to the scheme to display a commitment to inclusivity. This will give deaf and disabled jobseekers confidence in applying.
Whilst wider society poses many accessibility problems for deaf people, the legal sector is perhaps best placed to start challenging inequality.
If other sectors see those who uphold the law in their work also do so through their ethics, they’re more likely to follow suit.
Views expressed in our blogs are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Law Society.
Find out more about disability inclusion
- Read our easy wins and action points for disability inclusion
- Read our reasonable adjustments best practice guide for organisations
- Take a look at the Legally Disabled research reports
Help make the legal sector accessible and deaf-friendly:
- Find out how to sign up to the Disability Confident employer scheme
- Find out more about the Louder Than Words™ accreditation