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Opinion: Take affirmative action

Opinion: Take affirmative action

By Rebecca Johnston-Ryan

Disabled Persons Diversity Opinions 

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Inclusion of lawyers with a disability in the profession requires action from all of us.

Finding your career path as a newly admitted lawyer can be challenging. Facing this with a disability adds layers of complexity; not only do we have to sell ourselves to prospective employers as the best and brightest candidate, often we also have to sell ourselves as the ultimate diversity and inclusion hire while minimising our disability – the candidate with a disability that won’t affect the work we do or require too many adjustments. 

There are legislative measures meant to provide disabled people with equal access to workplace opportunities. The Equal Opportunity Act 2010 places duties on employers to take reasonable and proportionate measures to eliminate discrimination and victimisation in the workplace. Employers must not discriminate against job applicants in determining who should be offered employment, and to make reasonable adjustments for a person offered employment or an employee with a disability. 

Despite these employer’s duties, it is naïve to think discrimination against disabled applicants by employers does not occur in our profession. If this wasn’t an issue, we would see a larger cohort of lawyers with disabilities. Regardless of good intentions, it will always be available to an employer to take what is perceived to be the easier option hiring someone without a disability, to avoid the cost and consideration of determining and implementing reasonable adjustments for a disabled employee. There is a reason some of us don’t feel comfortable disclosing a disability until after a job offer is received. 

Take a look at the websites of mid and top-tier law firms in Victoria and you will likely find a page dedicated to Diversity and Inclusion policies. Look more closely and often there are no strategies or action plans to increase hiring and development of persons with a disability. In private practice, it is not uncommon for lawyers with a disability to be overlooked in terms of inclusivity measures. Government employers provide entry-level opportunities for graduates with a disability, with pathways for those with a disability in the Victorian Government Graduate Program being a great example. Mid and top-tier firms could follow the public service’s lead, and take affirmative action in hiring early-career lawyers with a disability. 

I am disappointed to say that challenges successful candidates face entering the profession don’t stop on your first day in the job. Managing misconceptions about your ability to practise law becomes an almost daily occurrence. 

There is little understanding that all disabilities are unique, and that reasonable adjustments will not be the same for all. There will be wildly varying opinions about what a person with a disability can and cannot do. There will even be the odd person who simply won’t believe you have a disability, and will criticise you for not meeting their expectations. Many people bring their opinions and assumptions about disability and capacity to the workplace, and then impose those views upon you and your work. The weight of other people’s assumptions about you can be a heavy burden. Do not carry that burden alone – you will also find kind, generous and patient colleagues, mentors and managers. They will help you navigate these situations and help you thrive. I have been fortunate to have such people in my legal life, and I am grateful for their ongoing presence in it. 

Inclusion of disabled lawyers in the profession requires action from all of us. Everybody can take steps to ensure lawyers with a disability are getting a seat at the table: 

  • ask if your employer has an inclusion and diversity strategy and action plan to increase numbers of staff hired with a disability. If not, encourage them to create one
  • employers can employ us. Don’t just interview us to meet a quota, treat us as legitimate candidates. If you can see past any initial cost and time spent inducting an employee with a disability you will have gained a motivated, engaged and loyal employee
  • establish mentoring programs in your organisation for disabled law students completing practical legal training, to help students build a network before seeking employment 
  • reflect on your perceptions of disability – start with the assumption we are capable. We’ve managed to get through a law degree and practical legal training, we’ve got this. 

Rebecca Johnston-Ryan is an adviser with WorkSafe Victoria and is deaf. She is an LIV Council member.


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