Senior leaders must lead the way for disability inclusion

The theme of International Day of Disabled People 2020 was 'Building back better: toward a disability-inclusive, accessible and sustainable post COVID-19 world'.
Woman using wheelchair working from home

Addressing disability equality is a collective responsibility and the legal profession has made a significant effort to push this up the agenda following the launch of the Legally Disabled? research in January.

We’ve continued to work closely with the Lawyers with Disabilities Division and the Law Society to update our research to explore how working during COVID-19 has changed the experiences of disabled legal professionals.

At a series of roundtables run with the Law Society throughout the pandemic, attendees have shared knowledge and identified gaps in the support available to address the challenges of making the report recommendations a reality. We’ve been pleased to also meet with a number of firms and networks to support your progress to improve inclusion. 

Despite the challenges of 2020, this year has brought us some unexpected opportunities to try out new ways of working and review long held assumptions about how and where we all work and communicate.

We can look towards a future that is more flexible and supportive and recognise the diversity of ways that people can be supported to reach their potential at work.

From the president of the Law Society to partners and senior managers in organisations of all sizes, continued leadership, accountability and commitment to taking action on disability inclusion will be key in creating long-lasting success.

How senior leaders can be allies and role models for disabled legal professionals

Identify priorities

Read the Legally Disabled? research reports and accompanying resources. Commit to a process and timescale for prioritising and implementing the recommendations for your organisation.

Wherever you are in your journey, there are both short and long-term actions you can take to improve inclusion by addressing policies, practices and working cultures.

As you move from crisis management to proactive forward-planning, consider how to utilise the lessons learned and opportunities that exist for implementing more accessible working practices.

Our report recommendations and the accompanying ‘Easy wins’ document can support the wider work of your organisation as you develop your post-COVID-19 strategies.

Understand disability

Avoid making assumptions and don’t underestimate the talent and contributions that disabled people can bring to your organisation. As skilled problem-solvers, disabled people know there are many ways of achieving the same goal.

Commit to resourcing relevant training for all employees and take the time to educate yourself about disability, ableism and the social model of disability.

Understanding obligations under equality legislation isn’t just confined to HR personnel. You can take action by improving your knowledge of the role of reasonable adjustments in removing disadvantage and of your duties as an employer not to discriminate.

The experiences and challenges of a disabled person entering the profession will be different to that of someone who acquires an impairment when their career is well established.

How might you seek out informal opportunities to learn directly from disabled people and improve your understanding of the daily barriers experienced and the creative solutions developed in response? This will do more to address unconscious bias than a training session.

Listen to disabled staff

When you get inclusion right, what should that look like and feel like for your employees? Only by working closely with disabled staff can you make genuine progress and avoid tokenism.

Co-production with disabled staff and networks, rather than consultation, is the best way to identify priorities and solutions for building a sustainable disability-inclusive workplace. Diversity and inclusion leads need enough authority and sufficient resources to embed inclusion throughout your organisation.

Advocate for disabled staff and networks to have a real influence on decisions taken by senior leaders.

Where size allows, build internal networks with a representative membership of disabled staff, allies and dedicated senior leaders from across an organisation. This ensures that the work is visible and welcomes feedback from all departments to enable leaders to respond effectively and efficiently to address priorities and concerns.

Whatever size your organisation, linking with others and the regional Law Society networks will share good practice and build ideas for activities, speakers and training that can promote a positive understanding of disability throughout your workforce.

Be a champion

Use your position to support disability inclusion efforts to be disability-led with a dedicated senior lead championing the work. Also, build strong allies and champions across the organisation – don’t confine this work to one team or a narrow working group with no clout.

Ensure that contractors, especially recruitment agencies, are clearly instructed to embed your values and priorities on inclusion into their services.

If there is an apparent lack of disabled staff, there may be an issue with people feeling safe to disclose. If you're a disabled person in a leadership role, consider being open about this with staff.

Senior disabled role models are crucial for creating an environment where disabled staff feel safe to disclose their impairment and talk to colleagues about their support needs. Consider how your organisation is perceived by potential applicants and the role that language and images play through your external communications.

Creating a genuinely inclusive culture throughout your organisation is a big call.

As a senior leader, you're in a position to challenge traditional practices such as presenteeism and long-hours culture by demonstrating healthier working practices yourself. In doing so, you can build an environment of trust and mutual support that strengthens teams and encourages everyone to take responsibility for making the organisation disability-friendly.

Being an ally involves using your privilege to give others a platform. Put yourself forward for reverse mentoring by a disabled staff member and really listen to learn. This will open up opportunities to have conversations that provide a powerful insight into attitudes and access barriers and the actions you can take to make meaningful change happen in your organisation.

Actively support the progression of disabled people into leadership roles and work with disabled staff to understand the formal and informal routes to career progression and how this may need to be different to the route that you have taken.

There are many expectations and taken-for-granted ways of working that create a disadvantage for disabled people, but these can be challenged and new opportunities developed instead.

Try new things

Be accountable and don’t be afraid of making mistakes along the way. Use internal communication platforms to speak positively about inclusion.

Be creative in rethinking job design and how teams are built to make the most of individual and collective strengths.

Embracing diversity recognises that everyone brings different skills and life experiences that adds value to their work. Discussing the importance of inclusion and diversity reduces stigma and improves the confidence of disabled staff to have conversations with colleagues about their impairment and the impact it has.

Open and supportive conversations and a willingness to learn from each other will build a working culture that all can benefit from.

Legally Disabled?

Legally Disabled? is a research team based out of Cardiff Business School, Cardiff University. They have worked with the Law Society and the Law Society’s Lawyers with Disabilities Division to produce research into the career experiences of disabled people working within the legal profession.

Launched in January 2020, Legally Disabled? The career experiences of disabled people working in the legal profession looked extensively at barriers disabled people face within the sector and offered employers recommendations on building more disability diverse and inclusive working environments.

Read the Legally Disabled report

The second research project looked at the impact of COVID-19 on the employment and training of disabled people in the legal profession. The research identified opportunities for the profession to embrace technology and flexibility in a new way, offering suggestions on curating a more inclusive future.

Read the Legally Disabled? COVID-19 report

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