Human Interaction: The Road to Inclusiveness

By the ABA Commission on Disability Rights

Goal III—Eliminate Bias and Enhance Diversity—is one of only four goals of the American Bar Association (ABA). The Association has four Goal III entities that undertake a wide range of diversity and inclusion efforts:  The Commission on Disability Rights; the Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession; the Commission on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identify; and the Commission on Women in the Profession.

The mission of the Commission on Disability Rights is to promote the “full and equal participation in legal profession” of persons with mental, physical, and sensory disabilities. “Diversity in the legal profession is a primary, ongoing goal for the ABA, and there is room for improvement,” said ABA President James Silkenat. Disability, however, is typically omitted from broader discussions about diversity and inclusion.

Why? One reason is that, for many, it is still “common sense” based on assumptions that people with disabilities can do less and that their exclusion is “natural” rather than a denial of civil rights. This echoes pre-civil rights era views about people of color and  women. Moreover, many people feel uncomfortable around persons with disabilities. They don’t know what to say or how to act, and are afraid of saying or doing something wrong, inappropriate or offensive. Or they realize or fear that disability is a real possibility for all of us. As a result, many avoid interacting with persons with disabilities altogether.

All of us hold unconscious biases, prejudices and misperceptions, including about disability. For example, because many lawyers usually rely on sight, they assume that the work of a lawyer requires sight or would be performed poorly without it. These assumptions can result in the exclusion or even marginalization of lawyers and others with disabilities.

How do we expand our personal comfort zone and move toward true inclusiveness? First and foremost, acknowledge your discomfort, uncertainty and biases about disability. Second, consciously decide to expand your awareness and knowledge about disability by interacting with persons with disabilities, learning about disabilities, and avoiding tokenism. The commission’s website, with its myriad resources and mentoring opportunities, is a good place to start.  In the same way attitudes have changed over time regarding other civil rights issues, the path to change for persons with disabilities requires a change in our attitudes and perspectives.