Being a disability ally in the legal profession starts with breaking your silence

The upcoming International Day of Persons with Disabilities is a perfect chance to step up

Being a disability ally in the legal profession starts with breaking your silence
Courtesy of UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Lorin MacDonald

The annual worldwide observance of the United Nations-sanctioned International Day of Persons with Disabilities (IDPD) is December 3. Proclaimed by a UN General Assembly resolution in 1992, the day aims to promote an understanding and support of disability issues. It seeks to create awareness of the benefits of integrating people with disabilities in every aspect of political, social, economic, and cultural life.

Did you know that over half of the human rights applications filed provincially, territorially, and federally are on the grounds of disability? While IDPD serves as a potent reminder of disability inclusion every year, workplace inclusion for people with disabilities remains as bleak as ever. Lawyers living with disabilities continue to face soul-crushing barriers to entry and challenges from within.

As I recently wrote, over six million Canadians 15 and older (22 percent of the population) identify as having one or more disabilities, which impacts over half of society. StatsCan will release its latest survey by the end of 2023, and I predict the oft-cited “one in five Canadians with disabilities” will jump significantly. Why? At the time data was collected last year, there was a greater awareness and less stigmatization of mental disorders, a better understanding of the definition of disability (not only what is visible, but also those that are episodic and non-apparent), the acquisition of COVID-related disabilities, and the ongoing aging of Baby Boomers.

When people do nothing, the dial on workplace disability inclusion does not move. Silence is often perceived as acceptance, which is no longer viable.

While most people do not intend to be exclusionary, they have many reasons for inaction: fear of saying or doing the wrong thing, doubt that they can make an impactful difference, and the high stress of the legal profession reinforcing the need to keep one’s head down. Furthermore, many equity, diversity, and inclusion conversations fail to include disability and accessibility inequities.

However, I assure you there is power in disability allyship. My disability awareness training reminds people that “ally” is a verb, not a noun nor a “badge” you wear during designated days or months of the year. As a member of the Canadian Bar Association’s equality subcommittee and the Ontario Bar Association’s constitutional, civil liberties, and human rights section, I am proud of our work to advance this agenda.

On December 4, the OBA offers a free session to CBA members moderated by OBA President Kelly McDermott, who lives with multiple sclerosis, in discussion with two lawyers with lived experiences and the chief commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission. Kelly will discuss the OBA’s peer support network for lawyers living with disabilities, which was launched this fall. It provides a safe, judgment-free space to share experiences (good and challenging) and resources while we learn from each other. You will likely find similar events celebrating IDPD in your legal community – I encourage you to attend, listen, and learn.

In closing, here are ten disability ally tips:

  1. Actively engage in everyday acts of inclusion. Demonstrate your commitment with adjustments to work hours, office layouts, specialized equipment, and support for those with vision or hearing disabilities. If you are unsure of what to do, be curious and respectfully ask questions like, “What’s one thing I could do to be more inclusive of our employees with disabilities?” and “What conversations do we need to have about disability inclusion that we are not having now?”
  2. Like others from marginalized groups, it is not the job of employees with disabilities to educate the privileged majority group. They already experience adversity in their personal and professional lives – don’t add to it. Diversify your social media feed to learn from disabled influencers. Do the work and find credible sources, then ask questions of a person with a disability who can either validate or negate what you have learned.
  3. Promote disability awareness with regular training sessions offered by people with lived experiences – and pay them for sharing their expertise! Offer bystander intervention and allyship training, so employees have the tools to support a colleague with a disability who is being harassed, unheard, or dismissed. Learn how to call out or call in adverse behaviours as appropriate. Understand how ableist microaggressions show up in the workplace, then act.
  4. Intentionally create an accessible environment, not only physically but technologically. Step outside of your non-disabled experience to consider how those with disabilities interact with your employees and clients. And this is important – avoid planning activities around food. For those with food allergies and mobility and sensory disabilities trying to navigate unfamiliar or inaccessible restaurants, it’s a minefield. Consider a potluck at your office instead to decrease anxiety.
  5. Implement inclusive policies and practices by baking in inclusivity to make it a conscious choice, not a reactionary afterthought.
  6. Consider your communication standards. Subtitle your videos, use alternative (alt) text to convey the “why” of images to permit reading aloud by screen reader software, check your website accessibility, and create and display your accessibility policy with alternative formats available.
  7. Set inclusive recruitment standards – are you using inclusive language, casting a wide net to attract qualified candidates, and inviting applicants to advise of accommodation requirements? Is your employment strategy inclusive? It is not enough to recruit people with disabilities; you want to create an environment that fosters belonging and values authenticity. How are your retention, mentorship, and advancement initiatives?
  8. Encourage a culture of feedback. Do you have a safe space for employees with disabilities to share challenges? Consider setting up a peer support network or an employee resource group. Voluntary, employee-led groups aim to foster a diverse, inclusive workplace aligned with their organization.
  9. Inclusive leaders recognize that vulnerability can be a superpower, not a weakness! Tone from the top matters, signalling the organizational values for others to implement. If we learned anything during COVID, it’s this: Yes, we’re lawyers, but we are also partners, parents, siblings, and children with real-life vulnerabilities and challenges.
  10. Check your language; once you know better, do better. Language constantly evolves. Always listen to learn first and build trust. Mirror how the individual states their identity. Some words are antiquated and oppressive (think “crippled” and “handicapped”) – banish them from your vocabulary.

And remember, accessibility is a journey. You are guaranteed to mess up occasionally, so view this as an opportunity. Apologize, learn, and move forward with positivity as a disability ally.

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