A different life overnight

To mark Disability History Month, Yasmin Sheikh, director and trainer at Diverse Matters and vice chair of the Law Society’s Lawyers with Disabilities network, shares her experience of suddenly becoming disabled as a legal professional.
Person using a wheelchair in an office

I was paralysed overnight. No warning, no accident, no idea what had happened. My world was turned upside down. I was 29.

The neurologist told me, “I think you’ve had a stroke of the spinal cord.” He said, “if you came to me the day before your incident, I’d have said there’s 0.00001% chance of this happening. There’s nothing you could have done.”

It was just random. It took a lot to get my head around that.

I was the first disabled person I’d ever met.

At the time, I was working at an international law firm practising personal injury law. Life is full of ironies! I joined the firm in 2005 and had qualified as a solicitor in 2003.

After my injury, it felt like a bereavement process; you grieve, mourn your old life and who you were. You go through anger, denial, frustration.

At the end of it, you come to terms with your new life, your new situation.

Returning to work

I had been away from work for about a year and felt nervous about returning.

I was fortunate that my workplace was accessible, which often isn’t the case (even less so in 2008), but there were still a number of things I was apprehensive about.

I contacted Access to Work, a government programme aimed at supporting disabled people to take up or remain in work.

Access to Work paid for my taxi journeys to and from the office, as navigating a largely inaccessible underground in a wheelchair would have proved tricky.

They also carried out a workplace assessment to ensure I could get around the floor of my department and access the disabled toilet and all parts of the building, including the canteen.

In terms of equipment, Access to Work partly paid for my lightweight wheelchair and a new keyboard.

The physical changes to my environment and equipment helped significantly. Still, I think that what prevented me from progressing and taking on more challenging work was my lack of self-belief.

I questioned what value I brought to the team now. This was a combination of my lack of confidence and misplaced paternalism by others in the team.

I was overlooked for many opportunities, like attending court with a partner on their big cases, which is something I used to do pre-injury.

A lot of people were very well-intentioned as they didn’t want to put too much pressure on me, but I do believe that there was also a “soft bigotry of low expectation”.

They were probably surprised I returned to work at all.

Inevitably, I didn’t feel challenged by the work I was receiving and watching others who were junior to me progressing in their careers felt demoralising.

I often question why I didn’t speak up and ask for the more challenging work, and the truth is that I didn’t feel good enough.

Equally, I rarely felt the encouragement and belief from my colleagues to progress, also reinforcing my low self-worth. It was a vicious cycle.

I found my passion when the global HR director urged me to set up a disability network and get involved with the diversity board.

I remember the first disability network was quite emotional. Many people started talking about their experiences of visible and non-visible disabilities and health conditions for the first time at work.

It was a cathartic experience, and although we all had different disabilities, we had a shared understanding of the stigma, discrimination and misconceptions people had about us.

In some way, we all felt like square pegs in round holes at work.

We had to fit into an ableist way of working, and anything different to that traditional way of working was perceived as deficient.

More than numbers

86% of disabled people acquire their disability whilst of working age. I’m part of this statistic, but it’s not all that I am.

Data helps us to identify needs, appreciate the scale of issues and measure progress.

However, understanding the experiences of the people behind the percentages makes all the difference.

Assumptions about disabilities can be especially damaging.

Disability is not just sticks and wheelchairs. I remember everyone who joined the disability network at work had a non-visible disability. I was the only wheelchair user there.

Most of the time, you may not know if somebody has a disability or health condition, so it’s essential for law firms to be inclusive and safe environments for people to be able to share information so that they can get the support and adjustments they need.

Today, 3% of solicitors declare they have a disability, a figure that has remained “virtually unchanged” in the last decade.

Although, using the Equality Act (2010) definition, an estimated 19% of the working age population is disabled (SRA 12 March 2020).

Disability inclusion

One of the many things the pandemic has taught us is that we can all work in different ways and be just as effective and productive.

Research carried out by Legally Disabled?, which analysed the career experiences of disabled people in the legal profession, highlights that the most requested and refused reasonable adjustment pre-pandemic was flexible working and working from home. This is now a mainstream concern.

Most businesses are now looking at hybrid working, so now has never been a better time to build a more inclusive profession where disabled people can thrive.

I have now left the legal profession, but I am thankful to the global HR director who saw my talents and skills even before I did.

Since 2015, I have been running my training consultancy, Diverse Matters, which helps organisations be confident when it comes to disability inclusion in the workplace.

Firms often don’t know where to start when it comes to disability inclusion or understand the positive impact.

One of the findings of the Legally Disabled? research showed that securing reasonable adjustments consistently emerged as the most significant barrier for disabled people in the profession.

Together with the Legally Disabled? research team, the Disabled Solicitors Network committee has created guidance to help organisations understand what they're legally obliged to do in terms of reasonable adjustments, and how to implement them.

The guidance includes real examples from many firms and organisations who work to improve disability inclusion.

Often firms may talk about other diversity initiatives, and disability can feel like the poor relation.

The Legally Disabled? research found that the participants felt that HR paid less attention to disability in their diversity and inclusion portfolio.

Reviewing the Legally Disabled? research reports and the reasonable adjustments guidance is a great start.

It sends a clear message to disabled people in your firm that you value them and are seeking to build a more inclusive environment.

Embed disability inclusion in your organisation by taking a look at our easy wins and action points for disability inclusion resource.

Created specifically for both larger and smaller firms, it includes practical suggestions that are easy to implement.

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