Anna Vroobel is currently a solicitor at Irwin Mitchell specialising in medical negligence. She was diagnosed with an autoimmune condition four years after qualifying as a solicitor and is a recent member of our Lawyers with Disabilities Division Committee. In this interview she tells us about her experience with developing a health condition during her professional life, how leadership teams and organisations generally can create an inclusive environment for people with disabilities and what she'd like to see change in the next five years.
Could you tell us a bit about you and your experience with disability?
I am a solicitor specialising in medical negligence at Irwin Mitchell. I am also one of the 83% of people with a disability who acquired their condition whilst in employment. I had been working as a solicitor for four years with no health issues when I became unwell. I was then diagnosed with an autoimmune condition.
Prior to my diagnosis I would have described myself as a disability ally but it was not until I had first-hand experience of navigating my 'new normal' that I truly began to understand and appreciate the challenges facing those with a disability in the legal profession. I had to educate myself about issues such as sharing information about a medical condition in the workplace, reasonable adjustments and accessibility. I gained a far greater understanding about how disability is both perceived and portrayed and the challenges that arise as a result
I've been fortunate that my colleagues at Irwin Mitchell have been very supportive. Amongst other things I now have adjustments to my workspace and can work flexibly. This has enabled me to be just as productive as I was before my diagnosis, if not more so. Going through my own experience with disability was life-changing but it's shown me just how determined and resourceful I can be. I also think it's made me a better solicitor as I have a more nuanced and empathetic understanding of the challenges my clients face.
Congratulations on your recent appointment to our Lawyers with Disabilities Division (LDD) Committee. What attracted you to the position?
After my diagnosis one of the first places I looked to for information was the LDD. What I found was a welcoming, committed and motivated group of people who are making real improvements for disabled people in the legal profession. I was fortunate to be able to sit as an observer before applying for and being accepted to a position on the Committee.
I have been in the privileged position of feeling well-supported by my employer but know that sadly my experience isn't universal. There is so much more that can and should be done to support disabled people in the legal profession and living with a disability has opened my eyes to how necessary the work of the LDD is.
Do you think there is adequate awareness around invisible disabilities? If not, how do you think individuals can help contribute to the conversation?
I do think that as a society we need to get better at recognising both the existence and the legitimacy of less visible medical conditions. Hidden disability comes in many different forms, from neurodiversity and mental health issues to physical conditions such as cystic fibrosis or ME. People may be in pain, fatigued or suffer from weakness but their symptoms are not immediately apparent to an onlooker. A particular issue faced by those with invisible conditions is being challenged about their right to use disabled facilities because they 'don't look disabled'.
There is increasing awareness of invisible disabilities but we can always do more. If you have a hidden disability, sharing your experiences will help to educate others, even if you just feel comfortable talking to your close friends and family. People can also contribute to the conversation by being allies. If your organisation is putting on a disability related event or initiative, getting involved and showing your support is a very important role that you can play. More generally remember that you don't necessarily know the difficulties that somebody is facing and to, above all, be kind.
What would be your top suggestion to an organisation who would like to become more supportive of their employees with disabilities?
One of the simplest ways of supporting disabled employees is to ensure that line managers have the knowledge and confidence to talk about disability openly and to understand how it affects people in the workplace. People with disabilities or health conditions may be reluctant to discuss their situation and to ask for support so line managers need to be confident in having those sensitive discussions. It's also important for line managers be aware of the varied challenges which may be faced by disabled colleagues and to know what support can be offered. Organisations should consider investing in specific disability awareness training for managers to assist them in developing the necessary skills.
Do you have any advice for how those in leadership positions could improve culture and inclusivity, particularly for those with disabilities?
Institutional and cultural change has to start at the top of an organisation. Leaders need to be positive and proactive in showing that they welcome and value employees with disabilities and, importantly, that disabled people have opportunities for career progression. If those in leadership positions are actively and visibly involved in disability initiatives, it sends a powerful message to the whole organisation.
A good leader will also be an ally who supports those in the workplace to feel confident enough to be able to share their experiences. It's only through fostering that culture of openness that organisations can identify the challenges, adapt and improve.
What would you like to see change in the next 5 years?
I would like to see a change of focus in how disability is perceived in the legal profession. At the moment the focus tends to be on a disabled person's limitations and how they can be accommodated in the workplace. I would like to see the focus instead be on the disabled person's talents, their ability and what benefits they can bring to an organisation.