National Disability Independence Day Invites Firm Leaders to Do Better

July 26 is National Disability Independence Day, a federally recognized day to celebrate the 1990 signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA is “a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including jobs, schools, transportation, and all public and private places that are open to the general public.” While its implementation and enforcement have been far from perfect, the law’s passage marks a watershed moment in the fight for inclusion. 

This holiday has us reflecting on how far law firms have to go to improve inclusion for disabled people. Many are just beginning to raise awareness across their cultures, and still learning how to include the voices of disabled people themselves in discussions about policy changes. One important aspect of all this is visibility and communication — How should firm leaders be talking about this issue? Here is some food for thought:

“Disability” is a broad and varied category. There is no such thing as a “typical” disability. The impairment may be visible — such as a motor impairment that requires use of a wheelchair — but most are invisible, including disabilities related to learning, attention, mental health and chronic pain. Disabilities impact people across gender, race and class, and can be present from birth or acquired due to an accident, aging, illness or injury.  

Most lawyers with disabilities do not disclose them.

While lawyers with visible disabilities have no choice but to disclose them to their employers, many lawyers with disabilities that are not apparent choose to withhold that information from their firms for fear it will hinder their career. This means that while the percentage of lawyers with disclosed disabilities remains low (about 0.6% of associates and 0.4% of partners), the actual number is much higher. In a spring 2020 ABA survey, 25% of respondents reported a health impairment, condition or disability. That means you very likely already employ many lawyers with disabilities — and serve clients whose lives are shaped by the experience of disability.

Accommodations usually benefit all employees, not just those who are disabled.

For years, lawyers with disabilities have asked for remote-work accommodations that would enable them to do their job from a home environment that is better equipped to serve their needs. In many cases, they were denied that accommodation, or firms failed to hire them in order to avoid having to make it. Fast-forward to the pandemic and widespread adoption of remote-work policies, and leaders have learned that in many cases workers are more productive when they can work from home and choose their schedules. By taking a flexible approach to workplace policies overall, law firm leaders can not only accommodate lawyers with disabilities but improve the lives of all lawyers, who will inevitably experience temporary or situational needs for such accommodation at some point. This is what full inclusion looks like.

People with disabilities are resilient, resourceful and creative.

Instead of asking what it’s going to take to accommodate a lawyer with a disability, ask yourself what your firm is missing out on by not creating a culture that includes their perspectives and experiences. Lawyers with disabilities bring extraordinary value to the firms where they work because the world constantly requires them to adapt and work around its barriers. This knowledge can make them more creative problem-solvers and more empathetic. It also enables them to ensure that legal services are offered in ways that are truly inclusive for clients with disabilities, and to understand the perspective of the diverse array of consumers law firm clients serve.

Language around disability is complex and evolving — and that’s OK.

Fear of using incorrect terminology and causing harm may keep some law firm leaders from talking about disability inclusion, but we are all accountable for learning this information. If you mess up, apologize, and then learn. When you know better, you do better. Staying up to date on affirming and inclusive language will empower you to lead on this issue that is relevant to so many of your lawyers and clients.

Legal industry professional organizations have come a long way in the past few years on creating resources to guide law firm leaders. The ABA Commission on Disability Rights is a great place to start. “Why Hire Lawyers With Disabilities,” an ABA video, should be required viewing for everyone in leadership at your firm. Ready to hire? Plug into networks and rethink your traditional interviewing process to potentially reach more candidates in this “vast, untapped market.”