This originally appeared on The Careers Group Law Blog
City Disabilities is a charity set up to provide support and advice for students and professionals with disabilities, as well as employers. We caught up with their Trust Officer Liz Dawes to find out more about the Charity and get her advice for students.
Can you tell us a bit about your own background and career, and City Disabilities?
I studied Law at Oxford, and then went into private practice, where I met and worked with our trustee, Robert Hunter. I then moved in-house and worked for a number of banks and asset managers, ending up as Deputy General Counsel. When I decided to pursue a different career, Robert contacted me and offered me a job with City Disabilities. City Disabilities is a charity set up by Robert, Kayleigh Farmer and Kate Rees-Doherty. We offer a free mentoring service to students with disabilities entering professions in London, and to professionals with disabilities who already work here. We also work with employers to develop best practice in enabling staff with disabilities to do their jobs.
Some students with disabilities are hesitant about declaring this on their applications or at interviews. What advice would you offer these students?
There is no “one size fits all” answer to this question. Some employers will do all they can to make adjustments in the selection process so they can fairly assess all candidates. They genuinely do want to find the best person for the job, and to enable them to work as any other employee would. If you know you are talking to one of those employers, then disclosure will undoubtedly be helpful. Other employers are not so forward thinking, and disclosing to them may do more harm than good. You also have to consider that some disabilities are easier to hide than others, and some candidates find the strain of hiding them more wearing than others. It’s a personal decision affected by a number of factors. For a more detailed answer you can read my weekly round-up for City Disabilities where we discuss exactly this point in greater detail.
In your experience are the majority of firms committed to increasing the number of students with disabilities they hire, or do some position themselves as disability friendly to appear politically correct or comply with legislation?
In our experience the majority of firms are committed to increasing the number of disabled students with disabilities that they hire. Their motivation for doing so is, however, varied. Some do it because they want to appear disability friendly, but the experience of working for them is very mixed. Some do it because they feel they ought to, and don’t want to get left behind. But in reality their attitudes are slow to change, and unless the drive to be inclusive for the right reasons comes from the top, little will improve. And some do it because they are looking for the best candidates, and are well aware that without being inclusive, they will miss out on valuable talent.
Given the competition among firms to attract and retain the best talent, do you think proactively recruiting more students with disabilities can help firms meet their hiring targets and stay ahead of the competition?
Yes it can help. We know that employees with disabilities, who are treated properly, are more loyal, and just as productive, as other staff. They have faced additional challenges to compete for these jobs, showing exactly the tenacity, determination and commitment that many firms say they are looking for. And we also know that innovation and progress – in any profession – rarely come from a room full of people who are all the same.
What examples of “best practice” have you come across, in terms of firms offering support to applicants and staff with disabilities?
Firms have started to hire palantypists for deaf lawyers, which is a good step forwards. The use of other support staff to help, for example, a lawyer with dyslexia to organise their workload, can also be very helpful in reducing stress. Newer buildings tend to be far more accessible to wheelchair users, and offers of alternative transport to work, such as taxis, has improved the working lives of employees with mobility issues. Flexible working can also be very useful for a variety of conditions, and the use of technology such as Skype means that those who struggle to commute need not do so as often as previously required. A great deal can be done with fairly simple technology and support, much of which already exists. The real difference, however, is made in training all staff to understand different disabilities, and to think about how they treat colleagues, as well as how they can enable them to do their jobs. Employers whose inclusivity policy has real teeth, and who have given authority and influence to the staff who are employed to enforce it, are the ones who are making a real difference.
Where would you direct students with disabilities who are looking for support or advice during the application and interview process?
Try to find a way to speak to employees with disabilities who work for the firms you are applying to. Speak to alumni, friends, family, charities and disability awareness groups – anyone you can find who might know a professional with a disability who works for your chosen employer. Only by talking to people who work on the shop floor can you get a feel for what it will really be like to work there. You could start with the Law Society’s Lawyers with Disabilities Division. Also, get in touch with City Disabilities. We have lots of mentors with disabilities who are lawyers in the City and who can give you an idea of what firms might suit you best.