“I know I have a disability, but I don’t sit and think about it all the time”

Five disabled solicitors who are also part of our Disabled Solicitors Network committee, met to discuss their experiences through childhood, training and entering the profession. They shared their stories to mark this year’s Disability History Month theme: disability, children and youth.
A diverse group of people are sitting around a big table. Theres a screen behind them with people on a teams call. The room is wood panelled with a red carpet.
Photograph: Reena Parmar

Experiences in childhood

Hannah: I didn’t know I had a disability until I was 15: I knew there was something wrong, but I didn’t know what.

I was ignored by doctors and told I probably had depression, which didn’t really align with what I was experiencing. So, I kept going back to the GP and after years I was finally diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis.

As a teenager, I was trying to be cool and make friends. I felt embarrassed by my diagnosis. I thought it would change my life in a negative way.

Ryan: Similarly to Hannah, I was diagnosed as blind when I was three, then re-diagnosed and told there was nothing wrong with me. When I was 10, I was told I would lose my eyesight within two weeks.

It didn’t affect me that much because I didn’t understand the severity of it. Most of my best friends knew and understood.

I can relate a little bit to Hannah being embarrassed. At school, I was encouraged to hang out with kids from the visually impaired unit. I hated it – people used to pick on them and I just wanted to be one of the lads.

Placida: I had a different experienc in that I had polio as a baby. The impact was mild paralysis on my right side.

School was okay for me; I was able to speak up for myself. At primary school, I enjoyed sitting on the benches in assembly and leaving classes earlier to avoid the crowds. I didn’t know those were reasonable adjustments at the time.

Secondary school was harder: it was an all girls school and there were instances of exclusion – for example, birthday parties.

I was looking back at my year 11 report recently and my teachers described me as positive. I think I’m still positive about most things – even if it’s challenging, there’s always a solution.

The fact I acquired polio is a gift because it’s given me so many experiences and opportunities I wouldn’t have had. It gave me strength to be courageous.

Coralie: I was hard of hearing from birth; my parents always knew but I didn’t realise until later.

At primary school, I was in my own bubble. But at secondary school, kids were much less forgiving – there was a bit of teasing and it made me a lot quieter.

The teachers were good about it – I could lip read, so they sat me at the front of the class. But I did do a lot more self-learning than other people because I wouldn’t necessarily hear what was going on in the room.

As Placida said, I think having a disability and learning to adapt through school gave me a lot of life skills that I use now. One of the best traits I get told I have is that I’m a fantastic listener despite my hearing – or perhaps because of it.

Mark: I was born with cystic fibrosis (CF), which meant I was in hospital a lot. I was told I would probably not reach adulthood.

My parents talked very openly about the implications of my medical condition. I think it made me determined not to let CF limit my life more than was inevitable.

I was interested in a career in law from an early age, mainly because it fit my skill set. I did have some anxiety about whether I was setting myself up for failure aspiring to a successful career.

Experiences going into university

Hannah: I was very determined to be a lawyer.

A lot of family and friends asked if I could handle it. I did a fast-track law degree, so it was very intense.

For me it was obvious, although I had poor attendance at school due to my disability, I worked hard for my grades and I was very focused.

At university, I suddenly felt I could talk about my disability: I had learnt a lot about myself and my condition. It was a pivotal moment for me, and I felt my university helped to shape me to who I am today.

Ryan: I had a similar experience. By the time I got to university in Manchester, I was quite self-sufficient.

The university was good: I had a special computer and it employed someone to come to the library and find cases for me.

I struggled with lecture theatres, I would look up at 250 people and not be able to see who’s who.

It was hard to make friends because at pubs or clubs, I would have to use my white stick and people who didn’t know me would think ‘what was wrong with me’. It’s daunting to get judged.

Coralie: I also loved the university experience – I feel like it was the same as anyone’s.

But I also really struggled in lecture halls. They’re so much bigger than classrooms, so someone would be right in front of me, and I couldn’t hear a word they were saying.

Like Ryan, I had someone helping me take notes. They weren’t a law student and wouldn’t know the case names, so would often leave blanks.

There was a point I gave up on that and for every class I would have to spend extra time reading and researching.

Placida: I also had an amazing time at uni. I loved being self-sufficient – going clubbing and working part-time.

I aspired to do medicine, but my friends always tell me I’m a natural lawyer. I’m argumentative and I like to think about both sides of things.

I got my first management role with the Civil Service. I experienced a lot of bullying and I hated it – that was when I first fully realised I had a disability.

Experiences during work

Hannah: Things were bad at school, but they got better. I think that may partly be because I know my disability better now, and I know what adjustments work well for me.

For a long time, there was a huge adjustment period in terms of working out what was best for me, but now I am not afraid to ask for help.

My firm has been fantastic. I’ve had days where I’ve called my boss in tears because something’s happened.

I’ve learned it’s okay to have a bad day and having a supportive employer has helped me embrace who I am.

Ryan: I took an unorthodox route into law. I was working in betting shops, and wrote to the head of legal asking for work experience. From there, I got a job as a paralegal and eventually a training contract.

Like Hannah, work’s always been great for me. It had never occurred to me to ask for a big screen, but once they saw me struggling to see on a laptop, they went and got me one straight away.

The pandemic did improve things; working from home is great for me because I don’t need to get public transport.

But I’ve noticed more workplaces saying they want you in the office, so it’ll be interesting to see how that develops.

Placida: I got my training contract in a local authority in South London. At that time, I was the only trainee, and I developed a lot of anxiety.

People didn’t see beyond my physical disability.

I recall a former colleague who came into the photocopying room and said I would be better off in a wheelchair. He didn’t have any right to say that to me, but nothing seemingly happened after I complained.

There was more kindness around in 2020 which is gradually being teased out. Everyone was working from home in 2021, so why not now? If you are admiring and calling disabled people superheroes, surely you want to accommodate that.

Coralie: After university, I didn’t disclose that I was disabled until I qualified. I had a bad experience where a large firm didn’t know what type of adjustments to make for me during the interviewing process.

At some workplaces, I had to fight for every adjustment. Other employers have been more proactive in asking what I need, which works to an extent, but when I was more junior, I often didn’t know what I needed.

As I get more senior, I see how important it is to be a role model and advocate for other people.

I think the pandemic empowered me because I got fed up with not being able to do my job. I had to make the change: no one else was going to do it for me.

Mark: I was afraid about the response I would get if I disclosed my condition. I was very private and nervous about being defined by my disability when I wanted to be known for my qualities and contributions as a lawyer.

I tried to make my health condition as invisible as possible to avoid challenging questions and judgements.

Those times I had visible health struggles and setbacks felt like I might seem incapable or incompetent.

As an ambitious young lawyer, I would feel anxious. That drives me to advocate for equality of opportunities for disabled legal talent.

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