Tag Archives: disability

A BADD day

I hadn’t thought I’d be doing a BADD post this year but the timing was impossible to ignore. As some twitter followers will have seen, I absolutely lost it on Wednesday evening after a conversation with my boss. I tweeted a full on screaming tantrum against him and against disablism in the legal profession (in my paticular case, predominantly arising out of the long hours culture but the need for a secretary is also increasingly frowned upon as unnecessary expenditure) and my experience of it. I can’t tell you how much physical pain I was in at the time of that rant. I was quivering with it. I’d been pushing myself to the brink of collapse over a period of months when my boss started a conversation (in the presence of another colleague) about formally increasing my hours. As much as anything, I think that after so publicly losing it and criticising my boss, it seems important to clarify what happened next equally publicly. I’ve since deleted the tweets because of my subsequent conversation with him.

I didn’t lose my temper then and there. I didn’t say much at all because my mind was racing as I was thrown back to all the things that had happened in the past. His tone wasn’t rude or threatening but he was asking me to commit to something that had been too much for me in the past. In nearly three years in this job, I’ve had one sick day and that wasn’t even connected to my back but on my old working hours it was rare to even get through a month without sick time because I was simply trying to do too much. I didn’t just see red. I felt overwhelming panic. I was already in so much pain. How could he ask this of me? People can be quite scathing over the issue of triggers and trauma but later I realised that I am still traumatised at a fundamental level by what went on in my last firm. The bullying and threats, the disbelief no matter how much medical evidence I produced, the criticism of my character. And most of it was delivered in “reasonable”, if patronising, tones. At one point six years ago I called the Samaritans. I wasn’t suicidal but I felt utterly worthless because I was being told I was. Pain Concern were supportive too but ultimately, after I finally got the courage to stand up for myself, demand the firm order an independent assessment from the Occupational Health team and put up, shut up or fire me and get sued, I ended up seeing a therapist to try to piece myself back together and I was still left doing too many hours.

I am a solicitor. It’s part of my identity. It’s not just a job to me, even though one partner seemed convinced I was a dilettante playing at having a job (seriously?? My parents are not that well off!). It’s a vocation and thank god for that because that keeps me going. They broke me and it didn’t stop hurting. It was made worse by the fact I’d worked there my whole career. Why couldn’t they see me as I am? Why couldn’t they see the determination and passion for my work that got me out of bed in spite of the pain? Why couldn’t they see how honest I am? On one level, I know now that they could see those things. They were threatening other people, unbeknownst to me, at the same time. It was two years before I discovered that in one particular instance, they’d been trying to manipulate me using my guilt and fear of losing my job, while at the same time pulling colleagues in and threatening them but without the shadow of discrimination. My disability was a stick to beat me with. On another level, I still believe them. I still feel that I’m worth less than the next solicitor, despite being more talented than most.

I know I’m predisposed to thinking if something has happened in one way once, it will happen again. Knowing that doesn’t change it. Three years, almost to the day, after the Occupational Therapist asked me:
“did a solicitor complete this form?… because they didn’t tick the box asking if you have a disability”
(“Yep. An employment lawyer”
“Wow…why?…”
“They don’t believe I have a disability”
“…but it’s obvious that you have a…I’ll answer the question anyway, shall I?”
“Yes please!”),
I joined my current firm on the basis of a three day week. I explained my disability without having to give as much excruciating detail as some interviewers expected. There were a few teething problems but on the whole, they were respectful and I started to feel like a human being and not as a partner in my previously firm had once introduced me, “The One With The Back”. But the fear was there.

At first, I stuck to three days. Then I increased my hours for two to three weeks while a colleague was on holiday and dropped back down again. Then business started booming and I started doing more. Most often, I spend an hour or so drafting at home in my pyjamas first thing on my rest days and drop tapes off for my secretary so I can review them the next day. Some weeks there’s no need but I might have a long stretch of a couple of months where I do that on every rest day. I also frequently work until 6.00pm and sometimes 7.00 or later. If I didn’t have an excellent secretary who is dedicated, interested and has just the right amount of initiative, it would be harder but, fortunately I do.

The day after that conversation, I went in on my rest day and talked to my boss. It probably did me good to vent so much on Twitter the night before and a couple of people, together with my mum, helped get me to the point of going in to talk to him (thank you to them). I’d slept incredibly badly because of the pain and, having woken up at 5.30 with my lower back in desperate need of a walk, as well as the mid and upper back and shoulder pain I’d gone to bed with, I decided to go in first thing…just as soon as I’d drunk a few pints of coffee and stood under hot water for half an hour.

My biggest worry wasn’t that I’d fly into a rage. It was that I’d start shaking and become incoherent. I really don’t do confrontation well. I explained that I’m aware I’m an unusually private person in an office where a number of people talk a lot about medical issues and that I’m concerned that may give the impression I’m “fine”. On the contrary, being in pain 24/7, I decided quite some time ago that there’s no point talking about it. It’s always there. It’s an absolute given. So what’s the point? Then I explained I’m actually at breaking point after a long period of overdoing it and that I’m worried about him asking me to formally increase my hours.

He was shocked and mortified. It turns out it he never wanted to pressure me to do more and it just came out wrong. I told him very briefly in general terms what happened at my last firm and about one specific incident and he was horrified. He said he really didn’t mean to make me feel like that was happening again and that, if anything, he was trying to say the opposite. He’s been worried I’ll think the partners are taking the piss by not paying me for all the extra hours I do over my contracted three days because I don’t claim them all and wanted me to know he’d recommend changing my contract and paying me more as pure salary if I want to formally increase my hours by a couple of hours a week because I seem to work at least that so often. If I don’t want to do that, we talked about how not all overtime directly leads to fee income (eg because my secretary’s was off for over half of April) and that I can claim more than I have been. He also admitted (without prompting) that he’s personally been taking the piss a bit by assuming I’ll be in at some point every day and asking me to have meetings with him when I’ve only popped in to drop tapes I’ve done off for my secretary and asking me for urgent work when my secretary’s been off so that I ended up having to do all the typing myself.

We didn’t need to talk for very long to clear the air and then I left for a proper day off. I’m glad I decided to talk to him. It probably was good to tell him even one incident of what went on in my last firm. I came to this firm off the back of years of suspicion, bullying, threats and atos-style assessments and I haven’t felt that my job is safe here. I went into absolute panic when he said “formally increase your hours” because I’d been forced to put myself through that before. He gets that now and he probably gets me a bit better too.

On Friday, he couldn’t wait to push me out the door at the end of the day, saying he didn’t want to see me stay late again. He saw me pushing work in my bag to take home but (as I’ve said to him before), I often work best first thing so I’d rather it’s there so I can do it if I’m up to it. So far I haven’t been (maybe if I didn’t feel the need to write this to clear his name, I would!).

There are lessons in all this. I now know I’m far from over what went on in the past, although being in the state I was in in terms of pain and exhaustion probably amplified my panic response. And now I know that I am trusted here and that the energy I put in is appreciated. I had thought that was the case, which was another reason why suddenly hearing something that sounded like the opposite hit me so hard. In many ways, I’m a great employee to manage because I’m never any trouble and never even mentioned in the vicinity of trouble but this is something that has been lying under the surface. I didn’t want to talk about the past with him before. Judging by other people and the things I know they talk about, that may actually be quite unusual but I suspect quite a lot of disabled people come to new jobs quietly carrying the lingering shame imposed on them by other people in the past. Maybe the good employers who want to do right by us need an awareness that that’s a possibility, even though we’ve chosen not to say it, but there are good people out there who want to do right by us and, ultimately, that’s why I decided to blog this year. It was a misunderstanding and my boss deserves to be acknowledged as one of those good people.

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Disability Confident

#disabilityconfident gave me pause. It made me reflect on where I am now. I spent a decade from the age of 17 fighting my own suspicion that what was wrong with me was mostly that I was just weak. I was making a fuss about nothing. I had a gp during my first few working years who would just ask me how stressed I was at work every time I saw him. Underneath my efforts to get a diagnosis and treatment there was always the sense that maybe I was just weak and lazy. I didn’t, not for one second, see myself as disabled or becoming disabled during that period.

Things changed in 2004. They got dramatically worse in fact. I couldn’t work any more. Suddenly being disabled became something I had to admit to in the course of battling for the insurance monies which would save my home and my job (the DWP didn’t give me any trouble at all over Incapacity Benefit). I wasn’t at all confident about having a disability. I was called faking, lazy and self indulgent over the next nine years, even after returning to work after a three year absence having taken the risk of racking up thousands in debt to skip the long waiting list and have surgery privately. Fortunately, there were also healthcare professionals telling me the opposite. I had serious problems. I was working as hard as anyone could to deal with them. And, ultimately I had to accept it too, this was a permanent state of affairs. When my employers were the ones challenging my work ethic, I also had the praise of clients, who had no idea what was going on in the background and thanked me for the quality of my work, my diligence and my care for them. They never knew most of my self esteem was bound up in them at that point.

It was to be three years before I learned that the worst series of meetings, at the height of the financial crisis when fee income had dropped across the whole firm, mirrored meetings with other people in my department. My disability was a stick they used to “motivate” me, while other solicitors were also being threatened in other less personal ways. I found out because they stuck to this “management technique” and I ended up talking about it with a colleague. It was only when he filled me in on what had happened to the others that I found the courage to say that I was out performing full time employees and they’d better be ready to let those people go if they came after me. They’d been right, you see. I’d felt guilty and inadequate that I couldn’t put more hours in. Their focus on my disability isolated me.

Almost a year to the day ago I found out I was being laid off in the course of a merger (ironically the redundancy process was the first time I ever heard my employers openly acknowledge that I had a disability at all!). I’d just written a long, statistic heavy blog post on the challenges facing disabled jobseekers. All of us, regardless of qualifications, are at a massive disadvantage in the jobs market. By that time I’d spent years pushing myself to the point of collapse, just to keep my job. I’d tried and failed to find a new one after being directly threatened with dismissal for my “lifestyle choice” of needing to work part time. My routine a year ago was completely geared to surviving until I could change that one thing: my job. I had nothing left over. Quality of life is such a relative concept. For some people even breathing unaided is impossible. For me, the single biggest impact of my disability was that a “work/life balance” became impossible.

Last Spring I wrote a post about the advantages of being temporarily unemployed with chronic back pain. It was stressful, don’t get me wrong, but my body was absolutely desperate for the three month break I got and although I only had statutory redundancy, it was enough to see me through that period. I did find a new job and it’s one where I’m working hours I can cope with. Nobody in my new job’s suggesting I’m overstating the problem. Nobody’s asking for more than I can give. Nobody’s criticising me for having a life outside the office. There’s no guilt or shame attached. Physically it didn’t all fall into place immediately – when I started the new job I had a long commute for the first few months, along with very little secretarial cover – but the three month rest beforehand helped.

Then one day I realised my life had changed immeasurably. I have energy for more than just work. It’s a confusing luxury to actually get to make lifestyle choices. I’m not sure what I’m going to do with this new power over my own life yet but at least I can see now that I have some. I’ve realised how much my life has changed for the better, if I let it. And emotionally? I’m finally in a place where it’s fine to just be me. I don’t have to talk about it or justify it. Having a disability isn’t part of a battle anymore. It’s just something that is. It’s taken for granted by the people around me and that is what makes it possible to be confident about it.

Labour Conference: Bedroom Tax and Beyond

My last post was about Conference season, written before Labour’s Conference. During the Conference I was reflecting on what I’d said about Labour in that post. The plan is to split this up into three posts. Otherwise it’s going to be a really long post and might not get posted until Spring Conference. I’m not looking at how Labour can deliver the promises it’s made and I’m going to limit it to some issues which are particularly important to me. I’m asking myself whether or not I can say “thanks Labour. You exceeded my expectations of the ideological position you would take in your policy announcements at Conference”.

A few hours after I saw that Ed Miliband was finally committing to the abolition of the bedroom tax on the Friday before Labour’s Conference started I watched the BBC’s 10 o’clock news and Newsnight and found the post-match analysis. Regardless of Labour’s reasons, the decision to scrap the bedroom tax is the right one but, as far as everything I said about what I want from Labour goes, the reasons matter to me. In fairness, Miliband did say that the bedroom tax is hurting people but the BBC coverage went on to suggest that he’s only making a commitment now because the bedroom tax polls so badly among Labour voters. Well, it’s true that it does and, yes, I think it’s also likely that the increase in overall opposition to the policy (from 51% to 59% since its introduction in April) added to his decision to finally stick his neck out. That and the fact that, if he didn’t, divisions within the party over the issue could’ve come to the fore at the Conference. The BBC also warned that he needs to stop there so Labour doesn’t come to be seen as soft on “welfare”. God forbid that should happen (a few months ago it was Newsnight who revealed the Tory-lite proposal of matching what people get out of social security to the level of their contributions but hey ho).

The bedroom tax was sold by the Government using the politics of resentment: the resentment of people who receive housing benefit and live in social housing by people who are financially better off yet unable to afford a home of equal size, whether to buy or rent. The Government wanted to financially punish people on housing benefit for having the audacity to live in the homes allocated to them by their social landlords. People came to see the underlying unfairness of this. A vocal campaign made that happen. Activists (particularly but not exclusively disabled ones), social landlords and some councils have made the running when it comes to changing public opinion. The result is that the public has been able to see past the figleaf of housing distribution that caused a lot of people to initially support it. More people see it for what it really is now they realise how spare rooms are defined and that there’s nowhere to move people to. They’ve seen it for what it is and they say “that’s wrong”. I don’t believe that the national Labour politicians have done a great deal to achieve that (but give some credit to Labour councillors). Other people made the running to change hearts and minds on the bedroom tax by putting it in the spotlight. In his Conference speech, Liam Byrne acknowledged the contributions that a variety of people make to changing public opinion. Obviously a large section of the public still support the bedroom tax but it’s progress. You might think it doesn’t matter how Labour’s new bedroom tax policy came about if the end result is the same but I’m thinking about whether Labour is proactive or reactive in setting policy.

Pundits on Newsnight went on to say that, while Labour might get away with talking about the bedroom tax, it ought to reaffirm its commitment to benefits uprating, although my understanding of Labour’s current stance on benefits uprating is that it’s warning the issue’s not at the top of its priorities as far as budgeting goes, rather than that the party thinks it’s an inherently fair measure. The BBC coverage does seem to be how it goes. One step forward then rapidly urged to take one sideways, to the right, and then back. The media acts like an over indulgent auntie telling Labour to just give the kiddies what they think they want, even if it’s dolly mixtures for breakfast, without necessarily stopping to ask the kiddies if they’d rather have something more healthy. On Newsnight uprating was called a popular cut. However, when I checked to make sure I hadn’t missed something new on benefits uprating in the Conference, I found a Labour List post saying Labour’s opposition to benefits uprating early this year had public backing. That post also made the same case for open dialogue with the public that I made in my last post. In the end, benefits uprating wasn’t mentioned by Miliband or Byrne at the Conference. I’m left wondering if the reason for that is that Labour’s concerned about being seen as soft on social security or whether it’s actually that the party doesn’t want to remind Labour voters of its wait and see policy. It could even be both, which is what’s irritating about the approach of selling only what people already know they want.

Saturday rolled round and Miliband had replied to the question “when are you bringing back socialism?” with “that’s what we are doing, sir” (which made me laugh because it sounded so like something the Tripe Marketing Board would tweet, but anyway). It made for fantastic headlines. Over the course of the weekend more policies were revealed, followed by Liam Byrne’s Conference speech. Looks good on the surface, doesn’t it? But what struck me was who was saying what and what wasn’t being said at all. Certain issues have been noticeably absent.

What were promised were easy policies. For example, a pledge to terminate Atos’ contract is a no brainer coming from Labour. It’s hardly cause for celebration. It’s another vote winner because, no matter what their views on payment of sickness and disability benefits generally, everyone has seen the stories of cruelty and incompetence related to Atos. Even the Daily Mail has published them, while continuing to push the argument that most recipients of ESA and DLA/PIP are up to no good. An unprecedented level of activism from disabled people has, I believe, put disability rights onto Labour’s agenda at the Conference. Byrne acknowledged the contribution disabled activists have made. I have a huge amount of respect for disability rights activists who haven’t given up in the face of everything from apathy to scorn and have continued to challenge Labour to stand up for disabled people. The steady pressure they’ve brought to bear has driven the unfairness of the bedroom tax and Atos assessments home to the public, despite a climate where disabled people are increasingly demonised as scroungers.

The proposal to introduce a specific offence of disability hate crime is also welcome. It should have been done sooner but it’s telling that it was Liam Byrne who made this announcement*. The creation of a new offence would be an announcement best left to Yvette Cooper, given the two hats she wears as shadow Home Secretary and shadow Equalities Minister. To me, including it in the shadow Work & Pensions Minister’s speech implicitly accepts the Government’s and media’s narrative that all disabled people are on benefits and legitimizes their agenda. It’s like saying it’s ok to have negative attitudes to disabled people, just keep it within the law. If they said that about other minority groups, I expect they’d be pilloried for it.

Byrne’s speech is a bit like one of those what’s missing from this picture puzzles. He says that there must be sickness and disability assessments, with or without Atos. That’s stating the obvious and people can interpret it how they want. It looks to me like the only thing Labour intends to change at the moment is Atos. I’m not holding my breath for a return to old medical assessments. He also says Labour will look at a better approach to the provision of health and social care but doesn’t mention the possibility of reversing the new criteria for disability benefits in the form of PIP. During consultation plenty of responses dealt with the question and in considerable detail. Was Labour listening? The April Labour List post linked to above cites a YouGov poll which found only 11% of people polled backed cuts in DLA so there isn’t public support for cuts per se but I’m not so sure about public opinion on medical criteria for entitlement, which would be telling. The stories of extreme hardship experienced by the most severely disabled and terminally ill people have gotten through but there’s a high level of public suspicion that claims are being fraudulently made. Maybe it’s too much effort to address the negative attitudes to disability benefits being pushed in the media. Maybe Labour just doesn’t believe people who will lose out under the new criteria. I found this footage from March where Milliband took a question from someone who will lose out. I found it a bit disturbing that, even as he was giving reassurances that DLA/PIP and motability would be looked at, he sounded like he didn’t really know much about it. Looking at it now, after the Autumn Conference, it feels like maybe Labour have just shelved the issue for now.

What else is missing from the picture? Byrne said:
“And the cardinal principal is this, full employment first,”
Fair enough. That should be the goal of any government: a job for everyone able to work. At Conference Labour talked about the minimum wage, inflation and even backed a living wage in a limited way but didn’t mention workfare. I get that Labour supports back to work schemes (well, back to work schemes that actually lead to long term employment) but how can Labour claim it stands for a fair day’s pay if it won’t commit to paying minimum wage under workfare? How can Miliband say it’s wrong for everyone’s favourite villains to pay minimum wage but it’s right for others, including large retailers, to pay nothing at all? As far as I’m concerned, silence on workfare is another sign that Miliband is looking for easy wins. There is so much resentment towards unemployed people now that short term slavery has become socially acceptable. He doesn’t have to do away with sanctions or work schemes completely to make a positive change but he’s not making the case for change at all.

As I mentioned above, there was no mention of benefits uprating, despite rhetoric about inflation and despite the fact that many people receiving benefits and tax credits are in work. The fact that Labour wasn’t prepared to go there, even after Byrne said:
“We’ll need a campaign for the living wage because it is wrong that we are spending the nation’s tax credits propping up low pay at firms with rising profits”,
is weak as far as I’m concerned. We get it. You’ve told us that there won’t be limitless cash in 2015. Couldn’t you at least commit to doing what you can?

I’m going to post separately on Ed Miliband’s Conference speech and the overall impact of the Conference on me but it’s fitting to end this post with a quote from his speech:
“We know what we’re going to see from these Tories till the general election: the lowest form of politics, divide and rule. People on benefits against those in work, people inside and outside unions, private sector versus public sector, the north against the south. It’s the lowest form of politics.”
I’m having some trouble seeing how Labour’s policy announcements prove they’re really going to strike out in a new, brave direction though. It seems to me that Labour gave potential voters what it was confident they already want when it comes to social security.

* since writing this I’ve read Yvette Cooper’s speech and gather from that that Byrne was actively involved in forming this policy which is even odder as far as I’m concerned, even if it does explain why he was the one to make the announcement

Accentuate the Negative

One Legged Man Falsely Accused of Benefit Fiddle, I read. Wow, I thought. There’s a whopping black eye for the DWP…and the CPS too, who actually prosecuted a man for supposedly claiming for his right leg, conveniently ignoring his left leg. Hurrah! A positive disability benefits story! Well, no. Actually it’s not, if you read the article I’ve linked to. Yes, it exposes incompetence of an absolutely gobsmacking nature in the medical assessment and at every stage afterwards but look at the way it’s framed. Robert Punter and his consultant both emphasise the fact that he worked right up to the age of 63 as being evidence he wouldn’t make a fraudulent claim. So we’re back to the striver/skiver language. He must be innocent because he worked despite what sounds like a devastating injury. It wasn’t necessary for the consultant’s letter to Robert Punter’s solicitor to say that. The glaring mistake in the medical evidence the DWP claimed to have could be identified without including the consultant’s own opinions on the characters of Robert Punter and other patients but presumably he was eager to help his patient and thought his additional comments would strengthen the impact of his letter.

DLA is a benefit provided solely on medical need. The consultant’s letter seems to suggest that lots of patients try to get more money in benefits by trying to weasel their way into an assessment that they’re worse than they are medically. He says he has:
“witnessed over the years many patients with far more trivial problems who have gone to long lengths to maximise their symptoms so as to claim various benefits,”
Unfortunately, his letter reinforces the myth that huge numbers of people are fraudulently claiming disability benefits. Although his comments weren’t necessary, there’s no reason his letter should debunk the myth – it was sent to Robert Punter’s solicitor for a specific purpose. I wonder how patients who read that letter in the paper will feel though. How many will wonder if he’s pointing the finger at them? How many will trust him less as a result of this?

Of course, it’s the newspaper which is reinforcing the myth by quoting so extensively and not pointing out that only 0.4% of DLA claims are fraudulent. It’s the newspaper that doesn’t bother saying that DLA can be what’s needed to make it possible for some people to work: one of the arguments against PIP by recipients of DLA who work is that the reforms will make it harder for disabled people who are downgraded into a lower band or taken off the benefit completely to work because they use the money to help them to stay in work. If they even manage a negative spin on a case like this, what will it take to get a paper to write a story that doesn’t just become one more brick in a wall of negative rhetoric about disability and benefits?

Benefits Britain

I got quite upset watching Benefits Britain last night and reading the comments about it on Twitter. So many people on Twitter were calling Karen a lazy scrounger. Nobody could stand her. Nor could I but that doesn’t mean I think she’s faking. There was a lot of sympathy for Melvyn and Craig but I saw none for Karen outside the WOW circle. I have chronic pain and even I had precious little sympathy for her because she was so whiny and I just didn’t like her (I appreciate she has several conditions but I’m going to focus on chronic pain here for obvious reasons). I felt let down by Channel 4’s choice of person to represent invisible disabilities. It seems people saw Karen as ignoble and obnoxious. She wasn’t bearing the conditions she has with “quiet dignity”. There’s no law saying people with disabilities have to be likeable though. It’s not a condition of entitlement to benefits either. It’s like the convention that people diagnosed with cancer suddenly become angels on the day they’re diagnosed. Two words: Lance Armstrong. It often seems like the public wants disabled people it can admire and pity in equal measure. People want heroes overcoming all odds, like Paralympians. They want Tiny Tim. But, when all’s said and done, disabled people are just people: good, bad, indifferent, imperfect people.

Karen was criticised for her answers during the work assessment, particularly for saying it hurt to lift a potato. Only Karen knows the truth of what hurts and how much. Not Twitter, not me. Watching Karen, I understood where her responses could be coming from. It’s hard to answer questions in an assessment when you have chronic pain. Many people with chronic pain can perform a lot of different actions once, on the day, but if they do it without giving feedback that it hurts or that they couldn’t do it repeatedly they run the risk the assessor will note that they’re always capable of doing it when the reality is that they might have a flare up tomorrow from doing it once and might cause a long term deterioration in their condition if they tried to do it regularly.

I believe Karen’s report that the pain increased when she picked up the potato – she pointed to the outside of her arm when she said it and I get increased pain from even lightweight lifting there too, although it’s a small and fleeting increase. If I thought her response was excessive at all, it was because the rules of the game say it’s unwise to remark on an increase in pain for such a minor action, assuming her increase in pain was relatively small. Doing so runs the risk that the assessor (whether a pure medical assessment or DWP one) will say you’re exaggerating and/or affected by psychosocial issues. Exaggeration is what viewers tweeting negatively apparently thought. Karen didn’t say it hurt a lot, just that it hurt, but that was enough to generate a lot of negative tweets.

I don’t know what happened to Karen before she was diagnosed with the conditions she has. Maybe it was a smooth ride from initial appointment to diagnosis. Maybe it was a pitched battle. I suspect that at some point it was a pitched battle because I’ve seen the frustration she exhibited over not being believed before. People suffering from chronic pain have to walk a path through the healthcare system but it sometimes seems like an invisible path. Say too little and you don’t really need help. Say too much and a diagnosis of depression is as likely as tests to find a physical cause for the pain. I’ve never had that happen to me but I spent over three years under one particular GP who seemed to think that I was too fragile a flower for the legal profession, that the pain was all in my head and induced by stress, while throughout that time a disc causing debilitating pain was growing ever more (as the surgeon later put it) rotten and my muscles were being put under strain, forced to compensate, in ways I haven’t recovered from yet and may not ever. I can see judgements being made by doctors on an person who comes off as abrasively as Karen and I can see her becoming more and more abrasive as a result.

If she’s defensive, even allowing for the possibility she might always have been unlikeable, it may be because she’s been made to feel like a liar so many times that she can’t help it. I don’t have to like her to understand it because I’ve been through the “I can’t fucking win” feeling. In one mind boggling case, an insurer’s assessment concluded that the surgeon who diagnosed a degenerative disc was just a trigger happy scalpel jockey who enjoyed cutting people up way too much for his diagnosis to be trusted. I paraphrase, but only barely. The surgeon was absolutely livid.

If Karen has been on benefits for some time, this could also be relevant to how she answers. When I made my first Incapacity Benefit claim I rang for guidance on completing the form because some of my symptoms fluctuate. The questions were similar to what Karen was asked, with multiple choice answers. I was quite clearly told, “tell us how it is on your worst days, not how it is today.” I don’t know what the DWP currently says but that’s the rule a long term recipient of Incapacity Benefit would be used to.

Among the tweets were some saying Karen was physically capable of doing a desk job involving typing if it wasn’t for her fake nails. I’m not going to get into how she spends her money but being in pain all the time can drag you down and it’s not controversial to say,  “find pleasure in the small things.” It’s a topic you might find on chronic pain forums and my pain clinic says to find things which make you happy. The small things can take many forms. Mine include star gazing, watching the wildlife and my cats but there’s another one that makes me think maybe this is why Karen has such cheerful nails. I mentioned in my last post I usually pick clothes to wear which reflect or enhance my own happiness. I started doing that after surgery, with a dazzling and mood lightening array of different coloured vests and pj bottoms.  Rather than carping at Karen, could we consider the possibility that she deserves one thing in her daily life that takes her mind off the pain in the moment she looks at her brightly painted nails?

One of the factors taken into consideration when determining if a person’s pain is “all in their head” or exacerbated by psychosocial issues is their appearance. Someone who makes no effort could have it held against them by an assessor (even the underwear you wear gets judged. Plain cotton is the best way to go. That’s not just personal opinion: I’ve read academic papers on the subject…on psychosocial issues, not undies generally!). In a medical context, bright multi-coloured fingernails could suggest someone who is not just making an effort but who has a sunnier nature than the stress of a medical appointment might display. When it comes to work assessments, this is another no-win situation though. Make too little effort and the same negative conclusions could be drawn. Make too great an effort and, just like the viewers who tweeted on this, the assessor could take it as a sign you’re less impaired than you’ve said in your forms.

Speaking of appearance, the “potato incident” suggested something about her appearance to me. Styling my hair hurts a lot in that part of the arm and in my shoulder. I used to hate my curls and only learned to love them after I realised by blow drying I was putting myself through unnecessary strain. Now I only blow dry my fringe (which, again, I love now but only had put in last summer after my hair temporarily thinned after a large number of steroid injections were administered in one go). It hurts even to do that. Often even lifting my arms to put my hair in a ponytail hurts. I think about Karen’s cornrows and wonder if she’d always have chosen them, whether she’s happier with them than if she was still able to tame her own (probably much tighter) curls (if she did before), whether she’s come to terms with losing a measure of control over her own appearance.

Back to the question of her ability to do a sedentary typing job. A reminder in case anyone reading this is new. I do work. I work part time. It hurts like hell every single working day. It hurt like hell to write this on my mobile even though I wrote it in chunks. I didn’t catch which part(s) of Karen’s back are affected because I missed the start of the programme, although that one little mention of pain in her arm that provoked so much fury suggests to me that typing could be out of the question. The chronic nature of her pain is also relevant. Doctors now know that, regardless of what the underlying cause of chronic pain is, pain begets pain. I’ve been told several times that by living in a daily “pattern of pain” where I peak and trough throughout each day of my normal working life instead of having the more normal non-pattern of good days and bad days (flare ups), I’m risking making my body’s ability to process pain worse as well as risking joints and muscles. That’s what Twitter (and the Daily Mail, of course) could be demanding Karen should do. But then, I didn’t see Channel 4 explain to viewers what strain different types of work would put on someone like Karen by modern medical standards or how chronic pain itself affects her body. Did I miss it? Channel 4 got the “money shot” of her refusing to do the work experience they were offering. In the context of the show, I thought she made the wrong choice. It’s one day. She’d probably have a flare up afterwards but it’d settle down again. That’s not to say she’s fit to work in the real world, just that I wish she’d stopped to think about the image she was putting out there.

Channel 4, you let us down. You hurt me. It’s your fault if people with invisible disabilities felt like Twitter was rounding on us during and after your programme. It’s your fault for not acknowledging prejudices and ensuring you had three people with similar personalities. It’s your fault for casting a wicked witch for dramatic effect. You know what, Channel 4? I hate you a little for that. I really do. There is one thing Channel 4 could do now to help the people it hurt by broadcasting this. Presumably it verified Karen’s medical conditions before making the show and verified their impact on her. It would be the sensible thing to have done. If it did, it should make a statement to that effect on the news and both before and after next week’s programme.

Notes:
For more on perceptions of people with invisible disabilities, I’d (not very humbly) recommend Looking Good: Invisible Disabilities where I picked out quotes from a study on the subject.

The programme mentioned rates of employment of disabled people in 1949 and today. The high rate of employment in 1949 wouldn’t have included Karen. For a detailed review of disability discrimination in the jobs market today I would (even less humbly) recommend How many elephants can you get in the DWP where I reported on the avalanche of evidence I found on the scale of disability discrimination and the fact that the Government isn’t doing enough to change things.

WOW, impact assessments and consultation

When I reviewed the provisions of the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities, by reference to a Report from a Joint Committee on Human Rights published in March 2012, I suggested that the Government’s failure to perform a cumulative impact assessment of it’s reforms, its response to the WOW Petition and its refusal to engage even with an mp (Michael Meacher) who supports the call for a CIA (all of which prompted that post) could breach the Convention. Last week, during a Commons debate on the need for a CIA Employment Minister Mark Hoban repeated the DWP’s line that it’s just too difficult to carry out a CIA and was mocked by Liam Byrne who suggested that if the UK can host the Olympics, participate in space programmes and have military operations abroad its government ought to be able to carry out a CIA. I’ve finally started to go through the rest of the Committee’s Report on the UK’s implementation of the Treaty and the Committee had this to say on the then Welfare Reform Bill (it received Royal Assent a week after the Committee’s Report was published):

“In our legislative scrutiny Report on the Welfare Reform Bill we noted criticisms of the impact assessment process for that Bill. Equality impact assessments were not published by the Government until the Bill was in Committee in the Commons, and, while equality impact assessments have now been published for distinct parts of the Bill, these do not attempt to assess the cumulative impacts of multiple provisions in the Bill on particular groups with protected characteristics. This is of concern, since at least some individuals will experience these changes cumulatively, and their impact needs to be understood in this way. For example, a disabled person may find that they lose their lower rate DLA, and therefore become subject to a cap on their housing benefit such that they cannot afford to remain in their home. Moving may disrupt informal patterns of care and support at the same time as they have increased reliance on these supports.”

And

“We are concerned that the UNCRPD, and Article 19 in particular, does not appear to have played a central role in the development of policy. Inadequate attention has been paid to the impact of relevant policy on the implementation of the UNCRPD, in contravention of Article 4(1) and 4(3). We recommend that the Government make a clear and unequivocal commitment to Parliament, equivalent to that which it has already given in relation to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, that they will give due consideration to the articles in the UN Disabilities Convention when making new policy and legislation, and in doing so will always consider relevant recommendations of the UN treaty monitoring bodies.

“However, if properly carried out, equality impact assessments provide an important mechanism through which to ensure policy achieves desired goals and avoids unintended consequences, and help to demonstrate transparency and accountability. We recommend that they should be produced early in the policy-making process with the full involvement of those likely to be affected by the policy.

“Given the breadth of the current reforms, the Government should publish a unified assessment of the likely cumulative impact of the proposals on independent living, and set out any relevant mitigations through the Disability Strategy. The relevant strategies in the devolved administrations should also include such mitigation plans.

“We regret the exclusion from the English specific duties under the new Public Sector Equality Duty of the requirement to conduct equality impact assessments. The Government should either revise the duties accordingly, or promote equality impact assessments as a matter of good practice, with the assistance of other expert bodies such as the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Scottish Human Rights Commission, Equality Commission for Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. We welcome the willingness of the Secretary of State for Justice to consider the impact assessment methodology being developed by the Scottish Human Rights Commission and we look forward to the outcome of that consideration.

“Our evidence suggests that equality impact assessments have not played an important part in assessing the impact of recent policy on disabled people in the context of the UNCRPD, because of poor quality, or untimely, EIAs. There also appears to be some confusion over the requirement to conduct EIAs, which the Government should clarify.” 

So, the Committee said that in March 2012. You’d think we wouldn’t need the WOW Petition. You’d think the Government would take these conclusions on board and act on them. Instead, in November 2012 David Cameron announced at a CBI Conference:

“Let me be very clear. I care about making sure that government policy never marginalises or discriminates. I care about making sure we treat people equally.

“But let’s have the courage to say it: caring about these things does not have to mean churning out reams of bureaucratic nonsense.

“We have smart people in Whitehall who consider equalities issues while they’re making the policy. We don’t need all this extra tick-box stuff.”

“So I can tell you today we are calling time on equality impact assessments.”

Apparently the “smart people in Whitehall” conveniently forgot about the Committee’s Report. Even before that speech, in May 2012 the Government had launched a review of the Public Sector Equality Duty. It called for evidence but, crucially, said it wouldn’t be opening the subject up to consultation. Why’s that crucial? The obvious reason is because it would meet with opposition but the other reason for the purposes of this post is that the Committee’s Report on the Disabilities Convention also considered the issue of consultation. It seems obvious to me that the Report’s conclusions on both consultation and EIAs would also apply to Cameron’s plan to drastically scale back the use of EIAs where disabled people may be affected by proposed policies. The Committee concluded:

“The UNCRPD specifically requires disabled people to be involved in the implementation of the Convention, and the Government have acknowledged the importance of such involvement. We recommend that the Government aim to involve disabled people in the development of policy, rather than simply consult them, and to ensure that timescales and methods are used which enable a full range of disabled people and their representative organisations to be involved.

We are disappointed that the English specific duties under Section 149 of the Equality Act no longer encourage the involvement of disabled people. This is a retrogressive step. The Government should actively promote involvement to public authorities as a means of meeting their Equality Duty and in order to comply with the UNCRPD.”

The Report noted that consultation does happen on various levels but also that some people felt that consultation tended to be with “the usual suspects” ie household name charities. Then Disabilities Minister Maria Miller’s defence of the Government’s record included the boast that they’d had over 5,000 responses to the Consultation on the replacement of DLA with PIP. I’ve checked. The DWP received 5,500 reponses, nearly 2,500 of which came from individuals. Protests at the reforms were met with the response from Miller at the time that they were symptomatic of problems with the existing system, demonstrating that one key to effective consultation with disabled people is whether policy makers are actually willing to listen and engage with them – Miller wasn’t and I’ve seen no evidence since that any DWP minister is.

The Report didn’t specifically address the issue of activists like WOW, Sparticus and Pat’s Petition. Disabled people are grouping together, carrying out research, professionally writing reports like this one (pdf) and taking to the streets in protest. Disabled people are stakeholders and clearly don’t feel the various relevant charities are contributing enough to the policy making process. Rather than being treated as stakeholders, activists are ignored at best. At worst they’re subjected to scorn and derision, facing the accusation that you can’t be that disabled if you’re able to give a detailed professional response to a consultation, organise opposition through social media or attend any relevant meeting or protest. Paul Maynard mp went even further in the House of Commons on 10 July, accusing disability activists of being “extremists”. From where I sit, if you have a vocal group of disabled people and their carers who want to engage you over your reforms, it’s shameful to ignore them and disgusting to try to undermine them with language usually attached to religious fundamentalists and terrorists. In fairness to Maynard, Pat’s Petition has reported he regrets his use of the word, following communications between Pat’s Petition and him.

This is a long enough post already so I won’t say anything more about Maynard but the fact is that nearly 50,000 people have signed the WOW Petition. I’m one of them and, if you aren’t yet I’d urge you to become one. The WOW Petition is necessary because the Government refuses to listen. It refuses to engage with disabled people. It refuses to acknowledge that the arguments for a cumulative impact assessment have merit. As I said in my earlier post on the Convention, individuals can’t bring claims against the Government solely on the basis of a failure to comply with the Convention but that doesn’t mean it’s not binding on the Government or that the UK courts and the European Court of Human Rights can’t rule that breaches have occurred in appropriate cases (see my earlier post for more on this). Apparently, the UN has also been made aware of the situation.

The UK should’ve been leading the way, setting an example for the countries it encouraged to sign the Convention. Instead this Government been guilty of wilful ignorance over the most basic of issues (namely whether the Convention is binding on the UK at all), has deliberately introduced reforms which take the rights and living standards of disabled people backwards and has done so without appropriate consideration of the consequences of its actions. The result has already been a reduction in the independence of disabled people and an increase in poverty among disabled people. Yesterday David Cameron launched the hashtag #DisabilityConfident. I’m confident of this: many more disabled people will suffer as a result of his Government’s policies if it doesn’t change course.

The Glass Ground Floor

I was asked about going into a law career with an invisible disability by someone currently studying for a law degree. He asked about my own condition – everything here is based on my experiences and is relevant to people with invisible disabilities. For a more general discussion of disability discrimination, including statistics, I’d recommend going back to look at How many elephants can you get in the DWP (most links in it are pdfs). I also spoke about my own experiences with recruitment in that post. Here, I’m concentrating on becoming a solicitor. I’ve got deterioration in several joints in my spine, among other things. I’m in pain 24/7 and sedentary working exacerbates things. I was talking to a friend recently in a more joking context about what it’d be like to be 18 again and this question reminds me of that. If I’d known then what I know now about how bad my health was going to get, I’d probably still have qualified as a solicitor. I love the law. It’s that simple for me. But I can’t in all conscience give other people suffering from a chronic condition the impression it’s going to be easy. I wish I could but the truth is that anyone whose condition affects their ability to do desk based work will struggle.

In terms of physical challenges, trainee solicitors are expected to do their own typing (as, increasingly, are qualified solicitors), although if your condition is a disability within the meaning of the Equalities Act you can ask for secretarial support as a reasonable adjustment to enable you to do the job. Some firms may argue that it isn’t a reasonable adjustment as it adds to the cost of training you, although it’s not as if you’d have a secretary all to yourself. If a firm has any outsourcing arrangements in place for typing, they may be more amenable to this adjustment. I’m not sure if the Access to Work Scheme (see below) covers this kind of cost but I need extra secretarial support (consistency of availability is the problem in my experience) as a result of my condition so I’ll report back on this point once my application’s determined. Speech recognition software is, theoretically, a cheaper alternative but I’ve found that proofreading work involves nearly as much strain on my mid back as just typing would (because of sitting with my hands in a “ready” position to type as I play back dictation).

Because training contracts aren’t permanent positions, firms may also feel that it’s not reasonable to expect them to buy ergonomic equipment you need – that would depend on things like the size of the firm, the cost of the equipment and its potential for being reused if you’re not kept on at the end of the contract. The Access to Work Scheme, under which the DWP pays for equipment, covers temporary as well as permanent jobs though – I’m only just using it for the first time myself and plan to blog on it once I’ve jumped through the hoops, which I hope won’t be flaming. This help with the cost of adjustments could make a difference to your chances (although if you’re in the unfortunate position of having all of the symptoms which make you disabled without a firm diagnosis, I’m not sure what the outcome of an Access to Work application would be). What you need to remember is that an adjustment legally being reasonable won’t necessarily be reflected in the attitudes of hiring firms. You could fight your corner. You’re entitled to but I’ve always been the wary of rocking the boat. Even if you have a potential claim for discrimination, would you do anything about it? I’d say it’s best to think about what you need (although I appreciate that’s not easy unless you’ve had a functional capacity assessment) and be prepared to discuss it in as positive a manner as possible. Other lawyers might disagree with me here but I think that if you go into an interview only prepared to list your needs, without anticipating their objections to them, you’ll be more likely to find they just dismiss them out of hand. Equally, they’ll be put off if you make demands without being willing and able to see their side (even if they’re in the wrong, they may deduct “character points” if they don’t like the way you argue your case).

A training contract also tends to involve at least 6 months in a Litigation seat, where you’ll be hauling a wheelie case of files around on a regular basis and travelling to court hearings (as county courts are being closed down, there’s probably more travel than there was when I was a trainee). Part of the reason I moved away from pursuing a career as a criminal solicitor was that I physically couldn’t cope with the pace of being on duty 10 nights a month, running around London police stations day and night. That was 14 years ago. If you’re doing a law degree, it’s a good idea to bear that kind of thing in mind when choosing your elective subjects. Litigation tends to be a really popular seat with other trainees so you could mention to a firm that you’d be willing to do three seats, or just do a short “crash course” seat in Litigation, and let other trainees extend their own Litigation seats. Whether that would work depends on how flexible the firm is. In my firm, we were literally given highlighters and graph paper and told to sort our seats out between ourselves so we all got more experience in the areas we were most interested in.

If you need to work part time, you should also bear in mind that your two year training contract will be extended until you’ve put in two years worth of training, based on the number of full time hours involved.

The competition for training contracts is brutal. There are far more law graduates than there are places and there’s no guarantee that a trainee will be kept on by their firm when they qualify. An able bodied graduate needs a minimum of a 2:1 to stand a chance. My experience as a qualified disabled solicitor is that even a first class degree hasn’t been enough to overcome the impact of my needing to work part time to manage my disability for most firms. I wouldn’t completely rule out the possibility that a university could help you to make a case that you should get preferred treatment for extenuating circumstances, in terms of your academic grades but I have to admit I don’t know the extent to which you might be able to do that so I’d recommend talking to your university about it asap, even if you’re on course for a 2:1. If you’re a mature student and your condition has meant there are gaps in your employment history, they should also be able to help you to deal with this in your applications.

A fairly small number of firms have agreed to positively discriminate but I believe a certain amount of cherry picking goes on in the recruitment of disabled candidates (and wider studies outside the legal profession support this). Someone with a well known, “stable” condition (eg blindness) is perceived as a safer choice by recruiters than someone with a fluctuating long term, potentially degenerative, condition. Because of this, I’d think long and hard before declaring you have a disability on an application. I know someone who didn’t declare she had lupus until it started interfering with her job a few years later. I didn’t declare I was disabled when I was applying for a training contract because I didn’t appreciate I was – I’d been led to believe by doctors that everything I was experiencing was normal – so it never even occurred to me to ask for adjustments to reduce the impact of my problems. I just ploughed ahead as if my actions wouldn’t make my condition worse. Now things are different. If, like me, you feel you have to declare because you’ll need major adjustments like working part time, you need to be careful about how you do it. One problem with having an invisible condition involving chronic pain is that it often takes years to get a proper diagnosis and there’s a lot of stigma around it. Law firms are just as susceptible as anyone else to asking inappropriate questions about your condition. With or without diagnosis, you need to be prepared for uncomfortable, unenlightened questions and if you’ve been put through the mill by previous employers, the benefits system and/or doctors, it’s really important to have prepared a non-defensive, straight forward response to questions.

You might be told by a careers service that you can use your disability to demonstrate determination in the face of adversity. Except to the extent you might need to go down the extenuating circumstances road in relation to grades, I wouldn’t do this for something like chronic back problems or a condition involving chronic fatigue. People tend to make assumptions like their fortnight with a bad back tells them all they need to know about chronic back pain, for example, so few will really begin to understand or acknowledge your strength. Also, any law firm’s priority is chargeable hours, no matter how much their website tries to pretty things up. If you can’t put in as many hours as the next competent (and presumably motivated) candidate, I don’t think arguing you have greater strength of character is likely to help matters (unless you’re asked a direct question along those lines – I was once asked how I managed to get a first despite my problems. I was so unprepared for question that I drawled “yeah, I’m just that good”!). What does help is if you can point to specific examples of how you’ve been able to perform well despite your limitations. This is a gentle way of letting recruitment agents and hirers know they’re making wrong assumptions! For example, I’m able to say I have a high level of client satisfaction despite working part time and that I’ve successfully worked part time for several years, which challenges their assumption that a Commercial solicitor simply can’t work part time because the clients won’t stand for it.

In terms of practice areas, Conveyancing and Probate both involve a fair bit of procedural standardisation, using a lot of template letters, and that could work better for you physically speaking than Commercial or Litigation in terms of the typing (and web browsing – don’t forget most legal research is done online). You’re probably more likely to find a part time role doing Probate than any other area of work as well, due to solicitors’ perceptions of what their clients expect from them. A major problem with Litigation is that you don’t get to pick Court dates or filing deadlines. Even if you’re willing and able to be flexible to accommodate this, it’s not really fair on clients if they never know what days you’re working. It’s not necessarily impossible. I’d say it’s very dependent on the size of firm, the particular area you work in and how the firm uses Counsel. If you’re interested in Litigation, work experience where you could discuss this would probably be a good idea.

Looking at your options after qualifying, you’re right that is possible to work as a sole practitioner but I wouldn’t call it an easy option and you aren’t allowed to run your own firm until you’ve got a few years experience as an employed solicitor under your belt. Once you have, you’d have the normal challenges of a start up business eg. indemnity insurance, access to resources like precedents and, of course, build up a client following. As with working as an employed solicitor, if typing is an issue you’d also need to have good speech recognition software or a secretarial service (which can be outsourced). You’d also need to create your own suitable workspace. There are also some areas where I’d say that it’s no longer feasible to expect to work as a sole practitioner – Conveyancing would be a no go because the Banks wouldn’t be prepared to give you instructions. Legal Aid work would also be out (and, frankly would involve expending so much energy for the rate you’d be paid that I doubt you’d cope physically). There are alternatives to going it completely alone. On the Commercial side of things, you can work as a consultant through a scheme like Berwin Leighton Paisner’s Lawyers on Demand scheme but I’m not sure if they take very junior people (I’d be surprised if they do). There are also networks of sole practitioner Commercial solicitors you could join once you’ve got some experience.

If you’re interested in Commercial law, working as in house counsel is another option but they aren’t usually much more amenable to flexible working than law firms and may have less secretarial support. Recruitment agents’ views on this vary. One even emailed to say that in eight years placing in house candidates, she’d only been able to find work for two part timers. I’m sure that’s true for her but there is a slight shift occurring. Some smaller companies might welcome the right candidate on a part time basis to cut spending on external lawyers but you’d need to build up experience elsewhere to become attractive to them. You also need to watch out for travel requirements. If you’re going to have to regularly travel abroad or around the UK, that may be a poor fit for you.

Another way of working in house would be to use your degree as a jumping off point to gaining qualifications as a company secretary.

For a long time, the public sector was the best place for lawyers wanting to work part time and had the best record on hiring disabled people generally. There have been serious cuts in public sector lawyer numbers in recent years but there are still training contracts available. Unfortunately, the nature of the beast means that your options when it comes to local authority training contracts are limited unless you can relocate. If you need to work shorter hours, that may also be more difficult in the current climate, where the emphasis is on getting more bang for their buck – cutting staff numbers without cutting the workload. A law degree could also open the door to non-lawyer public sector jobs. It’s worth considering whether your interests could take you in a slightly different direction in the public sector.

Another alternative is to work as a locum. Other disabled lawyers have suggested that to me (and locum work does sometimes lead to a permanent position) but you’d still need to get qualified and get experience under your belt before being considered a “safe pair of hands”. Also, locums I know are willing to commute up to a couple of hours to get to work during an assignment. For me, the driving alone would be too much to cope with. Another potential issue is that some people have some funny ideas of how conditions which cause chronic pain work. They think working full time for six months has the same impact on your body as working half time for a year. Speaking for myself, that’s absolute nonsense and if you push yourself hard for the length of an assignment, you do run the risk of doing longer term harm, both in relation to any underlying condition and by making the pain itself more intractable.

Job sharing is a theoretical possibility but I’m seeing few signs of it being available in my practice area. What seems to happen with part time, flexitime and job sharing is that firms reluctantly make them available for existing employees (usually women with children or partners nearing retirement) and can’t wait for things to go back to normal. There are very few new openings with flexible options on the Commercial side. It’s a matter of perpetual disgust to me that each time I see a discussion on alternative hour arrangements in the Law Society Gazette, disabled people get no mention at all. The majority of the discussion is on women with children, then older fee earners and then people who want to work flexitime for religious reasons. It’s not just our disabilities that are invisible in the legal profession. It’s as if we don’t exist at all as far as this issue is concerned. Incidentally, if you’re looking at firms’ diversity tables, bear in mind that many people who develop disabilities do so late on in their career. The tables may show a fairly substantial number of disabled people but the underlying reality could be that most of them are conditions like arthritis in the older staff and that very few junior fee earners are disabled.

Given the likely difficulties getting a training contract, you could also consider working as a paralegal in the long term. When I graduated, working as a paralegal was a move people only made to tide them over until their training contract began (this does still happen and time spent as a paralegal can be put towards your training contract, although it’s not unusual for a promised training contract to not materialise) but times have changed and the profession with them (some law students aren’t going on to do the LPC now and are going straight to work as paralegals instead. You could always do the LPC part time later while working but I know able bodied people who’ve done that and it’s not an easy ask). There’s a move away from having highly experienced, high charging solicitors doing the work to getting paralegals with law degrees to do much of the less complex work. This is the case across most areas and there are jobs available in some of the new big name ventures for non-solicitors (eg. probate work for the Co-op). The advantage to that route is that there’s a better chance of getting a job but I couldn’t say whether it would be physically better for you. I doubt it, if I’m honest. If you’re a paralegal charging out at considerably less than the qualified solicitors do, the employer is even less likely to want to make allowances for adjustments like secretarial help or reduced productivity when you’re having a flare up.

I know this makes for tough reading. It was hard to write for that reason but I don’t believe we should be telling any law students that everything in the garden is blooming and that’s even more important for disabled students. Anyone hoping to become a solicitor these days needs to be determined and resilient. You’ll need those attributes more than most but it’s not impossible, particularly if you’re fairly flexible about what field you’re willing to work in. Forewarned is forearmed. Now’s the time for you to take steps to try to improve your position, while you have access to your university’s careers service. I’d strongly advise finding out if you can get onto a mentoring scheme, whether it’s targeted at disabled people or not. Even if it’s not, as long as it puts you in a position where you’re finding out more about the profession and getting to know someone who might be willing to give you a reference in due course (or even a job – you never know), it’s worth doing. In terms of support which is targeted at disabled people, there’s the Group for Solicitors with Disabilities, who run a mentoring programme. Another group which isn’t strictly for lawyers but does have lawyer members is the Association of Disabled Professionals. They can match you up with one of their members to give advice and support as well. It’s also worth checking out the Radiate scheme which puts junior disabled people in touch with senior, successful ones. I haven’t used it but it’s got to be worth a shot.