Accessing Success: Eliminating Barriers for Attorneys with Disabilities
We often hear about the importance of diversity in the legal profession. Minorities and women are generally at the forefront of these discussions. Diversity, however, encompasses more than race and gender. It includes individuals like myself, who have disabilities. Like most diverse groups, individuals with disabilities have faced many barriers. While accessing success continues to present us with many challenges, we continue to represent a significant and influential group within the legal community.
“Disability” is a legal (not medical) term. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines disability as, “[A] physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual; a record of such an impairment; or being regarded as having such an impairment.” The ADA specifically prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in the workplace, in schools, in transportation, and in all public and private places that are open to the general public. Enacted in 1990, the ADA was created to guarantee that people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else. In 2009, the ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA) took effect and worked with the ADA’s disability definition by broadening the way in which it is interpreted. Although the law provides protection against disability discrimination, there are no instructions on how to effectively implement this law to promote inclusion in the workplace. Some employers report not knowing where to start.
Identifying barriers that attorneys with disabilities face is the starting point. Disclosing a disability is a personal decision, and for some, a difficult one to make. Stigmas associated with disabilities often prevent disclosure and is one of the biggest barriers that many attorneys face. It is difficult to determine the number of attorneys with disabilities in the legal field because disclosure is voluntary.
In 2017, the National Association for Law Placement, Inc. (NALP) published a Report on Diversity in U.S. Law Firms. Data was collected from 736 law offices and firms and the information revealed a limited number of attorneys who reported their disabilities (of any race or gender) at both the associate and partner levels:
These figures, while helpful, are inconclusive as it relies solely on attorneys who self-reported their disabilities to employers. We do not know how many attorneys with disabilities chose not to disclose. What we do know is that limited disclosures are likely caused by stigma—the idea that you cannot be an effective advocate if you have a disability. This remains a barrier that not only prevents disclosure, but also discourages attorneys from receiving the accommodations they need to succeed. Stigmas are often created by a lack of knowledge. Continuing to educate those both in and outside of the legal profession about disability is necessary in order to effect change.
Access to the legal field and workplace are also barriers that attorneys with disabilities face. Technology like VoiceOver screenreaders (created by Apple) which reads text and displays braille for communication, have provided a way for attorneys with vision and hearing disabilities to write memos, emails, and even conduct legal research. These advances in technology continue to provide attorneys with disabilities with the tools they need to succeed. Upgrading firm and bar association websites to make them more accessible so that lawyers with disabilities can participate in webinars and other educational programs more easily is yet another way to break down existing barriers. As long as advances in technology continue to be available, and funding for such technology is factored in to law office/firm budgets, attorneys with disabilities will have more opportunities to access success.
Continued efforts to educate legal professionals, pushing and planning for technological advances to improve access, and providing support to attorneys with disabilities will help to eliminate existing barriers in the legal field. Attorneys with disabilities possess the same (if not more) tenacity and perseverance than those attorneys without disabilities. As a member of this community, it is my hope that strides towards eliminating barriers will continue so that we can all achieve the success that everyone deserves.
 The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Reasonable Accommodations For Attorneys With Disabilities (Dec. 20, 2017), https://www.eeoc.gov/facts/accommodations-attorneys.html.
 Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism, 5 Things to Know About Lawyers With Disabilities, Michelle Silverthorn (Sept. 11, 2017), https://www.2civility.org/5-things-about-lawyers-with-disabilities/.
 ADA National Network Information, Guidance, and Training on the Americans with Disabilities Act, What is the definition of disability under the ADA? (July 14, 2018), https://adata.org/faq/what-definition-disability-under-ada.
 42 U.S.C. § 12102 (2012).
 ADA National Network Information, Guidance, and Training on the Americans with Disabilities Act, What is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)? (July 14, 2018), https://adata.org/learn-about-ada.
 U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Fact Sheet on the EEOC’s Final Regulations Implementing the ADAAA (July 14, 2018), https://www.eeoc.gov/laws/regulations/adaaa_fact_sheet.cfm.
 Anna Marie Kukec, Attorneys With Disabilities Make Success Accessible (January 2018), http://www.abajournal.com/magazine/article/attorney_disability_success_accessible.
 See supra note 2.
 Terry Carter, The Biggest Hurdle For Lawyers With Disabilities: Preconceptions, ABA Disability Law (June 2016), http://www.abajournal.com/magazine/article/the_biggest_hurdle_for_lawyers_with_disabilities_preconceptions?icn=most_read.
 NALP, 2017 Report on Diversity In U.S. Law Firms (Dec. 2017), https://www.nalp.org/uploads/2017NALPReportonDiversityinUSLawFirms.pdf.
 See supra note 2.
 See supra note 8.
 Nicole Black, Today’s Tech: How A Deaf-Blind Lawyer Uses Technology To Represent Her Disabled Clients (Dec. 4, 2014), https://abovethelaw.com/2014/12/todays-tech-how-a-deaf-blind-lawyer-uses-technology-to-represent-her-disabled-clients/?rf=1.
 See supra note 10.
 Robert J. Derocher, Accessibility Matters: Experts and Lawyers With Disabilities Help Bars Find, Eliminate Barriers, ABA Journal (Jan.-Feb. 2008), https://www.americanbar.org/groups/bar_services/publications/bar_leader/2017-18/january-february/accessibility-matters-experts-and-lawyers-with-disabilities-help-bars-find-eliminate-barriers.html.