“My life was 'work hard, play hard'”

Meet Yasmin Sheikh. Yasmin woke up one day paralysed from the waist down, aged just 29. It changed life – and work – for her and led to her quitting her job as a personal injury solicitor and starting her specialist training consultancy, Diverse Matters.
Yasmin Sheikh is a mixed-race woman with medium-length, wavy, dark brown hair. She is smiling widely and sits in a wheelchair on a stage, addressing an audience. She wears a black t-shirt, a silver and black patterned skirt and black shoes.

Growing up I always felt different. My school didn't have many people of colour, particularly not people who looked like me and who had a mixed-race identity. I always felt I didn't quite fit in – that's been a theme throughout my life.

My dad was a big role model for me – I wanted to be like him. He was a solicitor, and we would often talk about things like criminal justice. I found human rights and social justice really interesting. We would get very passionate about these topics.

My life was ‘work hard, play hard’. That was the culture at the time, and I really enjoyed it. I was working, living on my own, going out with friends. I found my work varied and interesting. Life before my spinal cord injury, and using a wheelchair, and immediately afterwards were very different experiences.

After my injury I felt just like I had at school – that I didn't belong or fit in. I questioned myself a lot. I had to change the way that I did things. I used to go to the gym in the morning and get to work at 8.30, but it takes longer to get ready in the morning now. I always saw myself as a morning person, but I had to start going into work later. The other change I didn't anticipate was the fact that my usual route into work was inaccessible on the tube.

When you have a disability which is so noticeable, it's almost as if you are genderless. People see you as the chair. That almost overtakes any other aspect of my identity, but I'm made up of lots of different identities that are all an important part of who I am. The world wasn't really designed with somebody like me in mind – in terms of the lack of accessibility and working in a different way. When it comes to intersectionality, unfortunately, the more boxes you 'tick', the more barriers you will face.

My experience at work changed too. I lost a lot of confidence, and I questioned what I could contribute to the profession. As I re-built my caseload, I found the work wasn't as interesting. It wasn’t anyone's fault – I think my firm didn't want to put too much pressure on me, and I wasn't really asking for juicy pieces of work either. It was a vicious cycle.

Being a solicitor just didn't light me up in the same way. I didn't feel I was useful there anymore. That's a very corrosive feeling – you think “I'm not doing what I'm really supposed to be doing”. My passion didn't lie in the same place. I felt I wasn't utilising the skills that I have now. I started becoming really interested in speaking at events held by organisations like the Business Disability Forum. That enabled me to gain confidence again.

My consultancy was born out of the feeling that I could add value in a different way. People are talking about other areas of diversity, but no one is really talking about disability inclusion. It was very cathartic, in a way, to not just help myself but also other people who've had a life-changing event – a diagnosis, injury or illness – and to try to make the legal profession more inclusive and understanding of people who may have a disability or health condition.

I want to flip the narrative on its head. A lot of organisations come to me and say: “how do we get people to disclose their disability?” Even that language is interesting – the word “disclose” suggests it should be shrouded in secrecy – rather than saying, for example, “share” your disability. Often, that's the concern. Firms are looking at the issue through the wrong end of the telescope. The onus is always on the individual, but it should be a collective responsibility.

I'm doing work that I'm passionate about. It gives my life meaning. It's the moments when I’m conducting training sessions where people say “that's really made a difference to me”. Or somebody who doesn't have a disability, who's a line manager, for example, saying “you've made me think about this subject on a deeper level and I'm going to do this differently now”. That is very satisfying. It's about the small moments where people tell me what I've shared has changed the way they look at things.

We're celebrating 100 years since the first woman was admitted as a solicitor, all the women who have led the way before us, and those who keep striving for equality in our profession today.

Read about more trailblazing women solicitors:

The women who broke the barrier

“People weren’t taking me as seriously until I showed them what I could do”

"Having my own firm at 29 was scary"

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