If your firm has decided to start including people with disabilities as a diverse category in your D&I programs, the first step is to learn how much there is to know. People with disabilities are not a monolithic group, even among those who share the same condition. Getting started means having an understanding of the scope and range of attorneys in this demographic.
Culture and Experience of People With Disabilities
Just as we recognize that a multitude of cultures are included in the overarching category of attorneys of color, people with disabilities are similarly diverse in their cultures and experience. People with apparent disabilities frequently say they have to overcome others’ view of them being their disability, stating, “My disability is part of me, not all of me.” They report having to learn to break the ice and make new colleagues comfortable in their presence before they can prove that they are capable, thinking colleagues.
On the opposite end, people with non-apparent or hidden disabilities constitute 71 percent of all people with disabilities and face a conundrum similar to one faced by the LGBT community. Should I disclose? To whom? How frequently? These questions are the dominant drivers of interpersonal interactions at work, with the question of whether it is better to be upfront about having a disability or to continually try to hide it.
People with hidden disabilities who choose not to disclose are sometimes given away by behaviors related to their disability. These behaviors are not a choice, but rather a reflex or a consequence of actively managing symptoms. Because the reason for the behavior (the disability) is non-apparent, bystanders may react by becoming angry, assuming the person chose to engage in unusual or unacceptable behavior because the real reason for the behavior is hidden.
For example, if a person with post-traumatic stress (PTS) is startled by a loud noise at work, they may jump, gasp or even shout in surprise as a result of the exaggerated startle reflex that is symptomatic of PTS. Another person who shouts in the workplace may rightfully be disciplined for being intrusive or unprofessional. As a reflex in a person with PTS, while it may be equally disruptive to others, it is not under the person’s control and no kind of discipline will make it so. In other cases, such as with autism spectrum disorders, an individual may have difficulty making or sustaining eye contact. It’s important to consider the reason for the behavior when working towards a solution to minimize or eliminate its impact.
In these examples, the person with the hidden disability is in a position where the symptoms of their disability have become apparent by virtue of the situation in which they are experiencing distress. Bystanders are unaware they are in distress, or feel that the reaction is disproportionate to the stressor, and respond by becoming angry. The person with the disability is then forced to simultaneously find relief from the stressor and decide whether to disclose their disability to someone who reacting angrily, while they feel vulnerable; make a joke to assuage bystanders, or in some other way brushing the incident aside. Until, of course, it happens again. Disclosure, advocacy and education are the only permanent solutions to this conundrum, but whether they are effective depends largely on the receptivity of the audience and the culture of the firm.
The overall experience of being a person with a disability is that of having an additional responsibility. The responsibility includes managing symptoms, advocating for one’s own needs and educating others on their condition. Likening this responsibility to carrying a big box, it’s hard to argue that if we saw one of our colleagues working to carry such a box, such a responsibility, that we would not help that colleague by offering to take a corner. Most of us would probably even offer to help a stranger. The culture in most law firms that do not include disability status in their diversity programs, however, does not allow us to see which colleagues may be carrying an additional responsibility. Thus, we are not afforded the opportunity to offer our assistance, limiting our ability to create community and inclusion in our firm culture and leaving the responsibility with the individual.
Because our current definitions of disability are based on a model of limitation, loss of function or incapacity, many of us do not realize that some people with disabilities feel their condition does not constitute something lost, but that they have gained something to which others are not privileged. A person who is deaf (with a lower case d) is someone who experiences hearing loss. A person who is Deaf (with a capital D) identifies as being part of the Deaf community, with its own culture, language and social norms. For example, speakers of American Sign Language (ASL), have no concept of eavesdropping. Anything that is communicated in ASL can be seen by anyone else. The protocol for keeping a conversation private has, by necessity, evolved differently. Until recently, this culture had no concept of sarcasm either. This is changing now, thanks to Deaf teenagers who will sign a remark and indicate that they were being sarcastic by raising one eyebrow and scrunching their lips together mimicking stupidity. And so Deaf culture evolves.
Consider the concept of color from the viewpoint of someone who has been blind since birth. Those of us who are sighted use color euphemisms for a lot of things that have nothing to do with color. Stop signs are red, and when a company is in financial trouble, we say they are in the red. The sky and the ocean are blue, but we also may say of a sad person that they are blue or have the blues. To further add to the confusion, the ocean is blue because bodies of water are blue, but a glass of water is colorless. The sky is blue, but the air in front of us is also colorless. People who are blind from birth have adapted to these sayings and understand the intent despite never having had the experience of color.
Benefits to Overall Diversity
Of all the demographic categories we as diversity professionals support, disability is the only one where:
- Most people know at least one person in their personal or professional life that has a disability;
- Any one of us can join this demographic at any time, and;
- Those who do not have a disability can “try on” the experience of having certain types of disabilities.
This aspect of “trying on” is unique to disability status. We can marginally relate to the experience of being blind because we have tried to find our way in the dark, we can relate to the experience of being deaf because we have been unable to hear, and we can relate to the experience of having limited mobility if we have ever sustained an injury such as a broken bone or pulled muscle which limited our customary level of function. While these temporary conditions are clearly not the same as having a disability that substantially limits a major life activity, the inconvenience, confusion, and reliance on others for help with routine activities serves to provide a level empathy for those who live with conditions that must be managed daily.
This has great implications for other diversity demographics such as gender, race / ethnicity, LGBT status, and others, because as much as we may learn about the experiences of people who are different from ourselves, we have no way to fully empathize as closely with these categories. There is no lived experience that others can draw from such as “trying on” a different gender, sexual orientation, or skin color. Through the experience of temporarily identifying with people with certain disabilities, a greater connection to and respect for all types of minority and marginalized groups may be forged, leading to better results from existing diversity programs.
About the Author
Sarah Babineau, MHR, PHR is President of Compass Metrics, LLC, a consultancy focused on law and professional services firm diversity metrics and analysis, and inclusion of disability in diversity programs. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.