Disclosing disabilities

Anna Vroobel, associate solicitor at Irwin Mitchell and member of our Lawyers with Disabilities Division Committee, shares her experience of disclosing a disability.

Person working on a laptop

I didn’t have any health challenges when I first entered the legal profession as a trainee.

It wasn’t until I had four years' post-qualification experience (PQE) that I became very unwell over a short period of time and, after multiple hospital attendances, I was diagnosed with an autoimmune condition.

My health deteriorated to the point that I had no option but to tell my firm what was going on. In hindsight, I do wonder whether I would have kept quiet if that choice had been made available to me.

As far as I could see at the time, disability was not looked upon favourably in the legal profession. The focus tended to be on a disabled person’s limitations and the accommodations required, rather than the person’s talents and ability. 

My experience 

In my professional capacity, I had not come across any openly disabled legal professionals. The obvious conclusion to draw was that the legal profession was not welcoming to people with health challenges.

Such little, or non-existent, representation made me think carefully before initiating a conversation about my health challenges. However, my colleagues at Irwin Mitchell have been overwhelmingly supportive.

In the beginning, I needed time to come to terms with navigating my ‘new normal’ so found it helpful to talk about my health on a 'need to know' basis.

I initially only spoke to my line manager and HR, who swiftly arranged for me to have an occupational health assessment. This was invaluable in helping me identify what support I could benefit from, as I didn’t know myself.

Practical measures such as a phased return to work, flexibility in my working hours and ad-hoc home working enabled me to get back to full productivity much more quickly than I would have done otherwise.

Ironically, my personal experience of depending on remote working meant that I was uniquely placed to offer guidance and support to colleagues during the pandemic.

More importantly, after my diagnosis, my colleagues accepted that I was still the same person with the same skills, career ambitions and drive that I had previously.

Going through my own experience with disability was life-changing but, if anything, it has shown myself and others just how determined and resourceful I can be.

My health challenges have made me a better solicitor as I have a more nuanced and empathetic understanding of the difficulties my clients face.

At the time of my diagnosis I was genuinely fearful that my health would irreparably stall my career but, with my firm’s support and a lot of determination on my part, I’ve continued to progress and have recently been promoted to a senior position.

Difficulties disclosing

I have been in the privileged position of feeling well supported by my employer but know that sadly my experience isn’t universal.

The Legally Disabled? research project found that only 50 to 60% of disabled legal professionals said they disclosed their non-visible impairment when applying for training and jobs.

For many disabled people the decision to share details of their condition is a very difficult one despite the fact that the legal right to request reasonable adjustments is dependent upon sharing this information.

Employers only have a duty to make adjustments if they know or should reasonably be expected to know that someone is disabled. 

Despite this, the fear of stigma, ill-treatment or discrimination is very real and many disabled people make the judgment that it is less risky to struggle on without workplace support. 

Much of this fear comes down to the lack of representation for disabled people in the legal profession.

Without having those role models, it’s understandable that disabled people are apprehensive about being open about their health challenges.

When an organisation is not actively and vocally disability inclusive, it can be seen as the safer option to conceal what is truly going on.

How and when to disclose, or not 

First and foremost, I have strong feelings about the word ‘disclosure’. For me, this has negative connotations and suggests that disability is something that should be concealed.

I think we should be moving away from this antiquated phrasing and talking instead about sharing health information. 

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. 

For the disabled individual, it's important to know that you can always choose whether or not to share details of your disability.

If you chose to share details, you can choose the level of detail to share and to whom. My preference is to share details of my health on a 'need to know' basis first of all. Once a relationship of trust has developed, a person may then feel comfortable in sharing more information as time moves on. 

For me personally, the most important reason for sharing details of my health was to have  adjustments put in place to enable me to do my role. Without my employer being aware of what was going on, I would not have had the support I needed.

More broadly every law firm is required by the SRA to provide diversity data for their employees. This data is completely anonymous and collated for the purpose of assessing how diverse, fair and inclusive an organisation is.

Diversity data is particularly important in 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.

An organisation may not be aware that they have any disabled employees but the anonymous data can show a starkly different picture.

Creating environments for better disclosure 

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.

Equally, having disabled people present in leadership positions is an important way of role modelling and championing disability.  

At Irwin Mitchell we have a strong diversity and inclusion ethos. As the IMAble Network Lead, an initiative at Irwin Mitchell to support disabled employees, I bring together colleagues from across the firm with the goal of improving diversity objectives for disability specifically and intersectionality more generally.

I also sit on Irwin Mitchell’s diversity and inclusion board to ensure that disability is well represented. 

Irwin Mitchell has also been active in bringing more visibility to disability in the workforce. We circulate a quarterly IMAble newsletter with each issue focusing on a different health condition or aspect of disability.

As disability has become more openly discussed, colleagues have chosen to share their own experiences of living and working with a disability. Several of my colleagues have published articles about their experiences or spoken at internal events to promote disability awareness and education.  

In terms of practical resources, it's important for any law firm to have clear policies and processes in place for disabled employees to request and obtain reasonable adjustments.

At Irwin Mitchell, for example, we have a straightforward process for obtaining an occupational health assessment as well as an intranet hub providing resources, practical support and signposting for both disabled employees and the wider Irwin Mitchell community.    

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