Director and trainer at Diverse Matters and vice chair of the Law Society’s Lawyers with Disabilities network, Yasmin Sheikh, shares her experience of suddenly becoming disabled as a legal professional.
I was paralysed overnight. No warning, no accident, no idea what had happened. My world was turned upside down. I was 29.
The neurologist told me, “I think you’ve had a stroke of the spinal cord.” I was the first disabled person I’d ever met.
Life is full of ironies! At the time, I was working at an international law firm practicing personal injury law. After my injury, it felt like a bereavement process; you grieve, mourn your old life and who you were. You go through anger, denial, frustration. At the end of it, you come to terms with your new life, your new situation.
Returning to work
I had been away from work for about a year and felt nervous about returning. Fortunately, my workplace was accessible, but there were still a number of things I was apprehensive about.
I contacted Access to Work, a government programme aimed at supporting disabled people to take up or remain in employment. They paid for my taxi journeys to and from the office, as navigating a largely inaccessible London Underground in a wheelchair would have proved tricky (in 2008). They also carried out a workplace assessment to ensure I could get around the floor of my department and access the disabled toilet and all parts of the building, including the canteen – and they also paid for my lightweight wheelchair and a new computer keyboard.
The physical changes to my environment and equipment helped significantly but perhaps what prevented me from progressing and taking on more challenging work was my lack of self-belief. I questioned what value I brought to the team now. This was a combination of my lack of confidence and misplaced paternalism by others in the team.
I was overlooked for many opportunities, like attending court with a partner on their big cases, which is something I used to do pre-injury. A lot of people were very well-intentioned as they didn’t want to put too much pressure on me, but I do believe that there was also a ‘soft bigotry of low expectation’.
Inevitably, I didn’t feel challenged by the work I was receiving and watching others who were junior to me progressing in their careers felt demoralising. I rarely felt the encouragement and belief from my colleagues to progress, also reinforcing my low self-worth. It was a vicious cycle.
I found my passion when the global HR director urged me to set up a disability network and get involved with the diversity board. That first disability network meeting was quite emotional. Many people started talking about their experiences of visible and non-visible disabilities and health conditions for the first time at work. Although we all had different disabilities, we had a shared understanding of the stigma, discrimination and misconceptions people had about us. We had to fit into an ableist method of working, and anything different to that traditional way of operating was perceived as deficient.
Research carried out by the group, Legally Disabled?, which analysed the career experiences of disabled people in the legal profession, highlights that the most requested and refused reasonable adjustment pre-pandemic was flexible working and working from home. This is now a mainstream concern, since one of the many things the pandemic has taught us is that we can all work in different ways and be just as effective and productive. Most businesses are now looking at hybrid working, so there has never been a better time to build a more inclusive profession where disabled people can thrive.
I have now left the legal profession and Since 2015, I have been running my training consultancy, Diverse Matters, which helps organisations become more disability confident. Together with Legally Disabled? the Lawyers with Disabilities Division Committee has created guidance to help organisations understand what they’re legally obliged to do in terms of reasonable adjustments, and how to implement them.
I remain thankful to the global HR director who saw my talents and skills even before I did.
Lawyers with Disabilities Division
The Law Society is committed to promoting inclusion in the legal profession. Members of the Lawyers with Disabilities Division come from a wide range of backgrounds and include law students, retired solicitors, paralegals, law lecturers and practicing solicitors.
Lawyers with Disabilities promotes equal opportunities for disabled people within the legal profession, encouraging solicitors to use their experiences and expertise to support aspiring solicitors or colleagues seeking to progress in the legal sector. They help members secure work placements and training contracts and support disabled people to access legal services and facilities.
They enable the voice of disabled people working in the legal profession to be heard by the Law Society, local law societies, the profession, government and other policy makers.
Membership of the Lawyers with Disabilities Division is free.
For further information, search: ‘Lawyers with Disabilities Division’
via: www.lawsociety.org.uk or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Access to Work: www.gov.uk/access-to-work
Legally Disabled? www.legallydisabled.com
Diverse Matters: www.diversematters.org
Lawyers with Disabilities
Search ‘Lawyers with disabilities’ via: www.lawsociety.org.uk