International Day of People with Disabilities 2020: Kingsley Napley’s (Diff)Ability Blog Series

Has COVID made the legal workplace more disability inclusive?

1 December 2020

Almost a year since it published its report on the career experiences of disabled people in the legal profession, Legally Disabled, in partnership with the Lawyers with Disabilities Division of The Law Society of England and Wales, has just released it latest research exploring how the pandemic has impacted the working lives of disabled lawyers. The research, which was launched on 2 November 2020, shows that the move by firms towards almost universal remote working could make the legal profession more accessible to those with disabilities in the long term.[1]  
 

Remote working removes some of the norms of office-based working that were barriers to disabled people.”

Prior to the first national lockdown in March 2020, ‘working from home’ was the most often refused reasonable adjustment sought by disabled lawyers. Since almost the entire solicitors’ profession has been working from home for the best part of a year now, the conclusion of this latest research that, “what was regarded as a minority request or a second-class way of working [has been catapulted] into a mainstream concern and priority”, is perhaps hardly surprising.   The report exhaustively and comprehensively reviews the impact of lockdown on the working lives of disabled lawyers and makes recommendations for how the gains that have been made during this uncertain and difficult time, can be capitalised and built on to promote better integration, support and equality of opportunity in the soon to be, ‘new normal’.  

Whilst recognising that remote working emphatically does not suit everyone, disabled or otherwise, overall, the research found that disabled lawyers reported that working from home had had a substantial positive benefit on their physical well-being. It is not difficult to see why the ability to (privately and autonomously) adjust position when needed or to take a break, coupled with the elimination of the commute, has radically improved the working lives of some disabled lawyers. The impact on mental health was, perhaps unsurprisingly, reported to be more mixed, particularly for those on the neuro-diverse spectrum, some of whom reported missing the human interaction and finding the technology hard to use. Significantly, the research found that, overall, disabled employees reported feeling more trusted by their employers and being more productive as well.

The research will be followed soon by a set of action points for firms to help them implement the recommendations. We await those with interest; in the meantime, I touch below on five of the key recommendations, as they are worth firms giving consideration soon, before the moment is lost and we return to how things were. We cannot let that happen.

  1. Consult on and make a plan as to how lockdown easing will impact future working arrangements for disabled people (and everyone else). Uncertainty over what will happen in relation to future working arrangements is stressful and unnecessary.
  2. Do not make assumptions. Working from home does not suit every disabled employee and reasonable adjustments need to be considered carefully based on choice and suitability;
  3. Consider how the firm will integrate future hybrid working situations so that disabled employees are effectively integrated and included, when some, but not all staff return to the office: “[i]t is essential that disabled people who may express a preference for home-working in the future are fully included and not ghettoised or excluded”;
  4. Invest in what the authors term, accessible citizenship: ensure that the opportunity to participate, in both fee earning, developmental and social events, that have been opened up by remote working, continue to be part of your post COVID-inclusion strategy;  and
  5. Ensure that the firm prioritises the ring fencing of resources to support inclusion, for reasonable adjustments and for training “to build organisational expertise in impairment specific accessibility”.

The overwhelming hope of those that responded to the survey was that employers would continue to facilitate home-working and that it would become as equally accepted as office-based work. Let us not lose the momentum and squander what IS undoubtedly one of the (very few) positive experiences of lockdown; we have an amazing opportunity to truly open up the workplace for those with disabilities and we would be negligent to let it pass.


[1] The survey ran from the 23 July to 16 August 2020 and asked 108 respondents questions relevant to their work during the period from lockdown in March of 2020 to July/ August of 2020.

About the Author

Julie is a Partner in the Regulatory Team, and is vice chair of Kingsley Napley's (Diff)Ability Group, our internal network for 
raising awareness of different types of disabilities (both visible and invisible) and creating a safe space for people to speak out about their disabilities. She is also a trustee of the Lord’s Taverners, the foremost charity creating opportunities for young disabled people and those from deprived areas to engage in sport and recreational activities in their local communities.

 

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