Guest post by Harry Charlton, chief executive of 7BR
Many lawyers and legal staff will be returning to their offices in light of the government’s Covid-19 revised guidance on working from home.
While many will be looking forward to returning to a familiar working environment and re-connecting with peers and colleagues, disabled lawyers and staff may not relish the prospect of re-adjusting to unaccommodating public transport, antiquated buildings, and poorly adjusted working environments.
Accessibility remains a real issue for the legal profession, particularly for the Bar. In a recent survey, 81% of barristers who have requested reasonable adjustments or support said the process created real stress and anxiety for them.
Accessibility is multi-faceted and means different things to different people – from how someone enters and navigates a building, through to using accessible language to help inclusivity.
Take, for example, Legal London, which is no stranger to Georgian buildings with smart stone steps leading up to the front door, narrow corridors and old-fashioned staircases.
These buildings are not accessible in the modern definition of the term. Yet one of the core skills of legal practice is ensuring that clients feel welcome, understood, and in safe hands – and so having accessible facilities is an important milestone to achieving this goal.
Taking conscious steps to boost accessibility demonstrates a genuine regard for individuals’ experience. We have tried to demonstrate our commitment to this ethos through the installation of Sesame Steps to our front door at 7 Bedford Row, whereby an innovative lift mechanism is elegantly and hydraulically concealed beneath the steps.
On approaching the steps, the lift can be independently operated to allow a seamless entrance into the building for all users. Thus removing a fundamental impediment to accessing an 18th century Grade II Georgian townhouse.
The hurdles we overcame in order to achieve this breakthrough were multiple – ranging from securing planning through to funding and delivering what is a complex and delicate project. Unfortunately, disability access is so often an afterthought, addressed at a point by when many will have already felt excluded by inaccessible infrastructure.
Positive change isn’t brought about overnight. It often comes about only with a hard battle from disabled people to educate and change the social attitudes of those not disabled by society, who often have little holistic understanding of a disabled person’s experiences.
Openness to learning and taking the steps to understand the experiences of disabled people minimises the risks of unconscious microaggressions which many in society so often commit.
Just one aspect here is recognising the impact that language has, such as perpetuating a false notion of ‘basic’ day-to-day tasks being ‘easy’ for all. The phrases ‘jump on a train’ or ‘nip to the loo’ are often used to suggest the speed and simplicity of such actions – but may can only be applied to non-disabled people.
The reality for disabled people is much more difficult and often requires extensive forward planning – for example, phoning ahead to ensure that the train can provide ramps for access at both ends of the journey.
Or needing to check whether establishments have accessible toilets, which in some cases aren’t large enough for additional wheelchair or carer access.
The fact that these everyday figures of speech disregard the experiences of millions of people disabled by society reinforces the status quo of being able-bodied as the norm, with disabled people as the ‘Other’.
What we should energetically aim for is a truly accessible society where a disabled person can easily board a train, can be confident there will be an accessible toilet and knows how far they may have to walk from the car park to reception, so that this language becomes accurate for us all.
Moreover, positive change can be brought about by having a disabled person in the room when decisions are made, helping to minimise the risk of individuals feeling excluded further; and not just when ‘disability’ decisions are being made
This can be difficult for chambers, considering a real lack of representation of barristers with a disability throughout the profession.
Whilst 19% of the working age population are registered with a disability, only 3.1% of barristers declare having a disability. The likelihood of having a disability rises with age, and for an ageing society, issues concerning lack of disabled access and inclusion will affect an increasing number of lawyers in the coming decades.
Having an inclusive and diverse workforce has been long proven to bring financial and cultural benefits to a business. Any progress towards this are (and should be recognised as) wholly positive actions rather than empty-gesture box-ticking.
In light of this, access for disabled legal staff or clients must not continue to be an afterthought. In some circumstances, structural change to the built environment may indeed be required. But for the vast majority of cases, a reasonable adjustment is low cost or no cost.
A cultural shift, for example, to encouraging barristers with an undeclared disability to request a reasonable adjustment could make a huge impact on retaining talent within the profession.
Similarly, chambers and firms can signal to existing staff and future applicants that they are alive to the needs of a diverse workforce by publishing disabled access guides to their facilities. This adjustment gives disabled people confidence as to how they can access and navigate buildings, rather than attempt to problem-solve on arrival.
We are working with AccessAble.co.uk, the leading experts on access guides, to achieve this. Disability, equality and inclusion training is another low-cost, high-impact way organisations can become more inclusive.
Virtual access to professional development opportunities and training should also be commonplace.
We need the viewpoints and experiences of disabled people to resolve long standing accessibility issues for the sector and for us all to better relate to the people we serve. Disabled legal staff and clients have long deserved better – and these imperative resolutions must start now.