2020 will mark the 25th anniversary of the enactment of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, which made it unlawful to discriminate against disabled persons in connection with, amongst other things, employment. How far have we come since then in ensuring access to the (in my case, legal) workplace, and what more needs to be done to ensure that our offices are not diversish, but truly diverse.

Very much inspired by a recent presentation that I attended about a project called ‘Able to Excel’,[1] from the authors Lord Shinkwin and George Relph, I went back to my own firm to find out what we were doing about making sure that disability discrimination was on our agenda.

What was it that prompted me to take this action?

I was really shocked and saddened to learn that in 2019, many people living with disability remain at a substantial disadvantage in entering the workplace, not just from a selection (or self-de selection) stand-point, but as a result of unsuitable housing and inaccessible transport etc. When I thought about it (and the statistics reveal) that there are strikingly few people in the legal workplace that identify as disabled. It is clear from all the output from the Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) agenda over the last few years that there has been a distinct lack of attention paid to ensuring that disability inclusion is a priority for businesses. If further proof were needed that something needs to be done, the House of Lords Report on the Equality Act 2010 (which replaced the DDA) concluded that “…combining disability with the other protected characteristics in [the Equality Act 2010] did not in practice benefit disabled people”.

Step in Lord Shinkwin and his colleagues. Able to Excel is a project that seeks to ensure Government and business create the right conditions for talented, young, disabled graduates to realise their potential, excel, and reach the top of their professions on merit, to the mutual benefit of themselves and their employers. As a starting point, businesses are encouraged to sign up to the Valuable 500 campaign, which has the strap line, “If disability is not on your board agenda, neither is diversity”. The core message is clear – in order to create a truly diverse workforce disability needs to be discussed at board level.

I am pleased to report that we have an active diversity and inclusion group as part of which, there is a (dis)ability sub-committee. The aims of that group are simple and include raising awareness of what a disability is (given that 95% of disabilities you cannot see) and educating people on how we can improve our understanding and interaction with our disabled colleagues, clients, friends and so on. Crucially for me, the group has set itself the aim of identifying areas where the firm falls short in our commitment to create a workspace that is inclusive of people with disability (particularly as we prepare to move in a year or so) as well as encouraging people with disabilities not to self-select away from applying for jobs with us.

Amongst the recommendations from Lord Shinkwin to ensure that there is a sustained focus on equality of opportunity and disability in business, are that the Senior Leadership Team should provide a safe, supportive environment for disclosure, innovative, practical solutions to workplace and non-workplace challenges and board-level mentors and disability champions. Some food for thought for our next meeting; I was not previously a member of our Diversity and Inclusion Group at our firm. I am now.