I am a Disability Consultant, coach and public speaker after a 12 year career as a lawyer in the City at an international law firm.
In 2008, at age 29, I had been working already for 3 years at my firm, just moved into my first flat and was loving life when I had a spinal stroke. I had to adjust to life using a wheelchair. My legs did not work and my head had to take over. I returned to work after 18 months and lost a lot of confidence. Could I still do the job? Would people treat me differently? These were just a few of the questions I asked myself.
As I read in the Lawyer UK 200 Diversity Audit 2015 that disability remains the most under-represented diversity strand in the legal profession, with less than 1 per cent of lawyers at the largest firms reporting having a disability of any kind. You are disabled under the Equality Act 2010 if you have a physical or mental impairment that has a ‘substantial’and ‘long-term’ negative effect on your ability to do normal daily activities.
Why are we uncomfortable telling our employers about having a disability?
To understand this we need to look at how disability is perceived. Let's have a brief look at our language, history and the media.
The word disability starts with the negative pre fix "dis" and so it does not sound empowering. Our thoughts affects our words and then our behaviour, so language is incredibly important. For example, "confined to a wheelchair" is common parlance and these messages affect people's thoughts and attitudes towards disability. Are they empowering or disempowering words? I have even used the word "disclosure" in this article which suggests that your disability is shrouded in secrecy.
In the 1990s hundreds of disabled people took to the streets in protest at the injustice they felt. Their efforts helped to bring about the Disability Discrimination Act (now the Equality Act) which was 20 years old last year. To think that only 20 years ago there was not any legislation in place to ensure that employers made "reasonable adjustments" for disabled people. Public transport and restaurants were not accessible. Disabled people did not travel alone, work or socialise. That was your lot in life. Charity would look after those poor disabled people. That certainly was the perception.
Workplaces reflect what is going on in our culture and the stories we all tell ourselves about a particular group. The media often polarise disabled people - the benefit scroungers and the inspirational paralympians. The reality is that of the 16% of people of working age adults who have a disability, most people fall into the middle.
1) It all starts with confidence
If this is something you struggle with then imagine if you did had confidence. Then how would you speak, what would you do, what would you hear others saying about you, how would you feel? Act as if you are that person, fake it until you make it. Do you know someone who has that confidence? How would they act?
2) What is your added value?
Think of times in your life where your disability has posed challenges - perhaps at school, at work or when trying to attend a social event. We are always problem solving. What have you done to get over those hurdles. Make a list, it's probably a lot longer than you think.
3) What are your resources?
If you have a disability, have not told your employers and it's affecting your work, then think what you need specifically to help you thrive at work. Help your employers to find solutions by doing your research. What have other people with your disability done to counter this challenge facing you? How has it improved their working lives? Come armed with this information to your employers as after all you are the expert when it comes to your disability.
4) Challenge people
Pick your battles when challenging people, otherwise it is draining having to do this every single day. However, we can have our own small victories by gently pointing out things to people when appropriate. For example, when someone asked me if I worked, I just made the observation that it's interesting that before I was injured, people would ask me what I did. I passed no judgement, I did not shout at the person, I merely observed. Message received.
I have found it so helpful to speak to others who also have a spinal cord injury and who have a positive outlook on life. There is an empathy there which our other friends and family cannot understand. I find that talking to others who face the same challenges, funny / strange encounters, frustrations and who share their tips and victories incredibly empowering and cathartic.
By Yasmin Sheikh
Disability Consultant and Coach
MyPlus Students' Club is featuring articles related to the theme of 'Overcoming Challenges' in the lead up to the UN International Day of Persons with Disability this Friday. Stay tuned for more.
Check out disability-confident Organisations.