Looking Back, Looking Forward: Challenging the Mindset of the Legal Profession from Awareness and Acceptance to Inclusion of Attorneys with Disabilities
By Salomon Chiquiar-Rabinovich
In July 2015, on the 25th anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Boston Bar Association held the charter meeting of the Committee for Attorneys with Disabilities (“Committee”). In announcing this new Committee, the BBA recognized the need to create a space for attorneys with disabilities to share their experiences, resources, and strategies for career advancement. (https://bostonbar.org/mobile/mobile-calendar/mobile-event-details?ID=18423). The creation of this Committee was an innovative step toward including those with disabilities in the broader BBA vision of diversity, equity, and inclusion. It was meant to provide a platform not only for those with visible disabilities, but for those with invisible or non-apparent disabilities like my own, dyslexia.
In the Committee’s early days, it was clear that the stigma attached to invisible disabilities was significant and far-reaching. Some members who participated in the charter meeting were uncomfortable with having their names appear in print, as they feared potential negative impacts on their careers. But the BBA was undeterred. The Committee’s establishment marked the BBA’s commitment to serving attorneys and law students with physical disabilities and neurodivergent conditions, which are reflective of the variations in how the human brain works such as dyslexia, autism spectrum disorder, dyspraxia and ADHD. For me, it was profoundly liberating. I have grappled with dyslexia for my entire life and, here, in this Committee, I found support and camaraderie. It was akin to the support and welcome I received as a member and regional leader of the Hispanic National Bar Association.
Since its establishment, the Committee has been dedicated to providing a safe, inclusive platform where self-identified attorneys and law students with a disability can find peer support and tools for professional success. The Committee has hosted panel discussions on Equal Employment Opportunity Commission investigations into discriminatory practices, as well as presentations on transitioning reasonable accommodations from academia to the workplace. At the time of this writing, the Committee is preparing to sponsor a panel on neurodiversity in the post-pandemic work environment. As we return to the office, this panel will examine the current opportunities for the long-overdue de-stigmatization of neurodivergent attorneys and their inclusion in organizational workplace DE&I initiatives.
The Committee strives to address the distinction between attorneys with visible disabilities that can be accommodated through accessibility, and attorneys with invisible disabilities that do not present as readily and, thus, can be more difficult to accommodate. This reality is corroborated by Bloomberg Law’s 2021 Legal Operations Survey finding that, of the 72% of respondents that track diversity or well-being, only 17% track neurodiversity. (https://news.bloomberglaw.com/bloomberg-law-analysis/analysis-why-neurodiversity-remains-deis-least-tracked-metric ).
For me, there are many accommodations that set me up for success. Dyslexia affects the speed and accuracy with which one decodes letters and numbers. Accommodations can include extra time for tasks, support in proofreading, larger fonts, audiobooks, and recorded classes and materials. These accommodations are relatively easy to obtain in academia but not so easy in the professional world. In my case, from my first year of law school at Georgetown and onward, I was fortunate that, even a decade before the passage of the ADA, I was offered accommodations, such as time and a half to complete exams and the ability to both hear a recording of the questions and to tape record my answers.
Throughout my career as an attorney and in the public sector, the stigma attached to disclosing being dyslexic (synonymous with underperforming) has been an impediment to my advancement. To excel, I depend on being provided with live proofreading and clerical support, just as someone with a limitation in mobility requires specific accommodations to move independently and be productive.
It is inspiring to read the success story of an attorney with autism, as set forth in attorney Haley Moss’s book Great Minds Think Differently, published by the American Bar Association in 2021. Moss offers a comprehensive examination of how neurodiversity affects law schools and legal workplaces, in making hiring decisions and otherwise. She re-enforces the idea that active change needs to be made to include and accommodate neurodiverse individuals, as well as promote the notion that people who think differently can be an asset in the legal profession.
The Committee for Attorneys with Disabilities is just one step. Others have contributed to our understanding of this critical issue. For example, through its Diversity and Inclusion Center, the American Bar Association began a campaign to encourage employers to hire attorneys with disabilities. Because of this, attorneys with neurodivergent disabilities are more likely to identify themselves as such and not feel they must hide being neurodivergent in a neurotypical work environment. (https://www.americanbar.org/groups/diversity/disabilityrights/initiatives_awards/ndeam/2020-video/)
The pandemic has brought forth a greater need for marginalized employees to be seen in a different light as part of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiatives. For us, the attorneys with disabilities, what lies ahead is not just the acceptance of our disabilities but, rather, how the legal profession can effectively transform itself to genuinely value and include its attorneys, both those with visible disabilities and those with nonapparent disabilities.