A recent survey has found that more than three-quarters of disabled students and graduates are afraid to let potential employers know about their disability for fear of being discriminated against. It is a classic dilemma for people with disabilities – and it’s one that I’ve been facing myself.
I have just graduated with a degree from King’s College London and I’ve decided on my next step – a career in commercial law. Prior to graduating, I had already secured two summer vacation schemes at top firms in the hope of obtaining a training contract.
However, when I first committed myself to commercial law about a year and a half ago, I was very concerned about being open on application forms because unlike most applicants, I am on the autistic spectrum disorder, as well as having traits of dyspraxia.
Many friends and family advised me against being open – or to “disclose”, as they put it – because of a fear that this information would be used to sift me out at the first stage of the application process. The way they saw it was that no company would want the hassle of employing me – they’d be scared about the effects of autism on my work, and wouldn’t want to “waste” money on adjustments when they could instead hire someone who didn’t need them.
It’s important to understand that everyone with autism is affected in different ways. Personally, I find it difficult to gauge social interactions, such as how long to speak for and the appropriate length of eye contact. Contrary to the stereotype of autistic individuals avoiding eye contact, I often find myself staring for too long and making people uncomfortable.
It is hard to work out if somebody wants to interject or has gotten bored of my talking. However, unlike people with more severe autism, I can read tone of voice very well. Hence, I am aware that I am not very good at controlling my own tone and can sometimes come across as angry or blunt when I don’t mean to be.
After attending a number of disability employment events, I was able to meet city graduate recruiters at large firms from the legal, banking and energy sectors – and learn first-hand about their approach to disability and adjustments. So, now when I apply for commercial law jobs, I am a lot more open about the conditions of my autism because I’m assured of the fact that this information will allow my employer to arrange the necessary adjustments for me to achieve my full potential, upon receiving an offer.
Often, I will ask that my interviewers and assessors be made aware of my autism, and how it might affect my performance in an interview. This will allow them to avoid misinterpreting how I come across in my delivery and focus instead on the content and quality of my answers.
If recruiters are informed at the start, they may be able to find explanations for behaviour which they’d otherwise find odd. Revealing that you are aware of this too will present you as a confident, mature person with good self-awareness and show that you are interested in improving yourself.
That being said, I do have some concerns. While I’m convinced that being open makes applying for graduate and entry-level roles easier, I am concerned about the low numbers of openly disabled people in higher levels of the professions. In particular, the apparent lack of any openly autistic partners or counsels in the legal sector.
It might be that nobody with autism has ever reached these positions. It’s more likely that they have, but chose to remain quiet about this, or they may not have been diagnosed.
Either way, without open role models, I sometimes worry whether or not I will be able to reach those top positions, and wonder what it is that is holding some disabled people back.
Though large law firms might have a great attitude, top jobs in the legal sector are largely client-facing, and I can’t help but worry that client concerns about disability play a large part here – so a law firm’s internal positive disability policy may not help.
I’d like employers to understand the benefits of disability, e.g. it can make people a lot more determined to achieve goals, and the challenges it presents often trains us to become good problem-solvers.
A different way of looking at the world is vital. Recent evidence shows how diversity – of experience, background and belief – benefits business. But if people aren’t open about their needs, then they may not be able to perform at their best.
I choose to tell potential employers about my disability so that, should I require any adjustments, they’ll be available – and I can walk into work and spend all my energy on doing my job rather than hiding who I am.
Update: This article was originally written in March 2015. The author, Jonathan obtained his training contract in 2015 and is now a future trainee solicitor at Reed Smith. He is currently undertaking the LPC after finishing his graduate LLB. Alongside this, Jonathan sits on the Law Society’s equality committee and a DWP Expert Advisory Board, advising on how best to support people with disabilities, and the Parliamentary Autism Commission, using his personal experience to help others.