Professional Ambassador Libby Hanson shares her advice on disabilities in the legal profession.
We all know how stressful it is to get a training contract but if you have a disability, it often adds an extra daunting dimension. I am a wheelchair user with some dexterity problems but I have just come out ‘the other side’ and qualified! Below, I have outlined some advice based on my own experiences to hopefully help other disabled students going through the training contract process.
Knowledge is key:
The good news is there is currently much more awareness and positivity towards disability in the workplace compared to just four years ago when I was applying. Whilst you should obviously always apply to any firm you are interested in, use resources such as Aspiring Solicitors to assess which firms are openly pro-disability as this may make your search less intimidating.
To declare, or not to declare, that is the question:
There is an open debate as to whether or not you should declare your disability on your application form. This often depends on the nature of your disability, for example if you have a ‘hidden’ disability (such a hearing problem or dyslexia), it might be easier to conceal during the interview process compared to an obvious disability. Personally, I have always chosen to declare my disability, not only because it can’t be hidden but also to give myself the best opportunity possible – whilst it shouldn’t be an issue, in reality, I wouldn’t want an interviewer to be ‘surprised’ and perhaps felt like I’d deceived them by not declaring. Declaring a condition also allows for any necessary adjustments to be made prior to an interview. That said, I am aware of a few people with hidden conditions who have decided not to declare as they have wanted to be judged on the same terms as other candidates.
If you are unsure, try not to over think it – go with your instinct as you need to feel as comfortable as possible going forward in the process.
Whenever I meet new people, I’m aware that they might be trying to suss out my disability but typically won’t ask any questions as it can be a PC minefield, therefore it can sometimes feel like ‘the elephant in the room’. Usually, interviewers will be looking for confident candidates who aren’t afraid to speak up when necessary. As daunting as it is, I try to bear this in mind and break down any barriers by saying to the interviewer that whilst my condition will mean a few extra considerations (such as access), I’m confident I can do the job required and if they have any questions, I’d be happy to answer them.
The Assessment Day:
It is likely that you will be assessed in conjunction with other candidates therefore you need to make sure you are on an equal footing. Remember to be positive – you have the same academics and strengths on your CV as the other applicants – don’t put yourself at a disadvantage, be clear and ask for any adjustments you need.
Your Training Contract:
Once you have got a training contract (well done!), the same as above applies – liaise with HR to ensure everything is set up for your start date. I know it can be hard telling your firm what you need before you even arrive but they employed you and (depending if you declared your disability) were aware of your condition so they will be expecting it. It is no secret that starting a training contract is nerve-racking, but starting without the required adjustments made would make it even more so – you need to go in there and show them what you can do, give yourself the best opportunity to do that!
Organisations such as Access to Work often fund any adjustments and equipment needed so it is a good idea to book an assessment with them a few months before you start.
Every trainee, disabled or not, will have at least one confidence crisis during their training contract, I would always say, stresses and situations pass, lessons are learned, you’ve worked hard to get there so try your best and don’t worry. In all honesty, (without sounding like a sporting brand) the best advice I can give is – just do it!