"Sharing my disability story was the best decision I ever made"
My interest in disability stems from both my own experience and supporting my family. I have non-visible disabilities – inflammatory arthritis and fibromyalgia – which developed during my working career and are fluctuating conditions that can impact my working life. In particular, chronic pain and fatigue present challenges for me on a daily basis. I am also a parent to neurodivergent children, and a carer to a parent with restricted mobility.
I was the first member of my family to graduate from university. At first my father was unhappy about my decision to study and practise law. As a working-class immigrant who had left school at the age of 16 to support his family, his perception was that lawyers mostly worked with criminals. When I undertook my training contract at a Magic Circle law firm, he didn’t understand the pressures of the industry, or why I was expected to work long hours. It was only post-qualification that he began to understand the world I had stepped into.
I struggled for a long time with ‘masking’. As a trainee and a junior lawyer, I was painfully aware that my life experience did not match those of my colleagues. I spent a lot of time as a junior lawyer feeling unable to participate in conversations or events. It was easier to be a silent observer than to openly embrace my differences. Simply put, I felt unable to bring my whole, genuine self to work.
When starting my career, I didn’t have any role models that I identified with. As a disabled woman from an ethnic minority and a lower socio-economic background, I have faced multiple barriers due to my intersecting identities. I find it incredibly challenging that I can’t see others in the profession, particularly those in positions of seniority, that I identify with. Now, I mentor a few disabled students who are thinking about a career in law, and I talk openly about my career, in the hope that others don’t have the same experience that I did.
Sharing my disability story was the best decision I ever made. I shared my experience with global colleagues at an internal firm event to celebrate the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. That was a terrifying moment – it was a leap into the unknown, as I knew that I could not take back what I had shared. But I was blown away by the reaction of my colleagues. So many people expressed an interest and offered their support. I finally felt able to bring my whole, genuine self to work.
Sometimes you need other people to share their story to feel confident about sharing your own. We all live in fear of being judged, and sometimes it’s hard to know whether you are talking to a friendly audience that will support you. After I went public with my experience of disability, other people from across the firm and the profession reached out to me to share their personal stories, which was incredibly encouraging to see.
We need to acknowledge the importance of intersectionality. I can’t separate my experience as a woman, from my experience as a disabled person, from my experience as a person from an ethnic minority. Each of these intersections presents layers of barriers. The profession needs more leaders and senior figures who reflect multiple different intersectional perspectives. This will give the next generation confidence that they can thrive.
There is a lack of disabled senior leaders in the legal profession. This is hugely problematic, because we want disabled students to enter the profession, and to bring with them their wealth of talents, strengths, and diversity of thought. But if they don’t see senior members of the profession that they can identify with and emulate, the legal profession is in danger of missing out on that fantastic talent pool.
Senior leaders need to use their position to help others. Disability is not a minority issue, and yet historically it has not been given the same priority as other diversity characteristics. I am determined to change this dynamic. As the chair of the DSN, I am grateful to have a platform to help raise awareness and drive positive change in the profession.
Mental health and disability are not separate, but rather interconnected. If someone is disabled, has a long-term health condition or is neurodivergent, the chances are that this will negatively impact their mental health. So please, if your organisation has them, encourage your employee disability and mental health networks (and indeed all of your employee networks!) to collaborate, in order to reflect intersectional perspectives.