June 25, 2019
Diversity in the Legal Field Means Inclusion of Lawyers with Disabilities
Chair of the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights
We need to increase the high-level diversity and inclusion of lawyers with disabilities in the legal field and within the public service arena. Lawyers with disabilities bring valuable skills to the table that translate to crafting public policy.
My guide dog Bowie and I have attended various meetings on civil rights as the new Chair at the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights, including the Maryland State Bar Association’s diversity summit. Arguably, some leaders may overlook disability in diversity and inclusion discussions. Specifically, disability is indeed an element of diversity and inclusion that has measurable value.
Therefore, a need for a lawyer and his guide dog exists to break through glass doors – sometimes in a figurative way, sometimes in a literal way.
The Problem and Opportunity
A colleague asked me in route from one of these meetings, if I have encountered a lack of awareness at the bar association or in the legal field. I told him that indeed I have encountered negative experiences in building a career as a lawyer with a disability. Overt discriminatory experiences, such as in applying for positions, have occurred. More so, one can sense doubts from journalists, politicos, and lawyers that a blind guy with a dog could be a public official. An article in the 2018 issue of the American Bar Journal documents this point. The article indicated that “statistics show that the legal profession as a whole either isn’t doing its fair share to recruit, retain and advance attorneys with disabilities, or it has failed to be inclusive enough for disabled lawyers to feel comfortable disclosing their impairments.” As I recently told alumni of the Presidential Management Fellowship, building a career as a lawyer with a disability proves no straight path. To improve this situation, I have been a convener. In addition to this, I encourage those with disabilities to forge a unique path, but one that serves the public.
Advantages of Disability
Diversity and inclusion efforts should reinforce that lawyers with disabilities bring value to the table. Arguably, the public health arena has done a great job in increasingly improving equity by framing it as a matter of business value. I am not sure that disability policy has always framed the benefits of disability from a monetary or values standpoint, as much as from a legal one. Therefore, it is important that we emphasize the disability inclusion conversation as a value-based one.
An article, “Employment and Disability: The Advantages of Being Disabled” by Jane Hatten, published in 2014, opined that disability brings a special set of skills to the table. By having to forge unique careers in the face of discrimination, people with disabilities particularly develop and need to daily brandish a set of skills. I suspect this is true of other diverse populations who have had to advocate for themselves. Some of the skill sets identified by Jane Hatten in her article include:
• Innovation and creativity
• Problem solving and persistence
• Using technology creatively
The daily work experience of legal professionals with disabilities is not always for the faint of heart but can be rewarding for any given office. In my personal experience, it can be a challenge to obtain acceptance from fellow professionals to be in the room, if even to turn-on the ubiquitous computer in the morning. Then again, computers seem to also plague most of my sighted colleagues from time to time. Most of them do not of course suffer a computer yelling at them via text-to-speech. I do, however, think many of my colleagues find my text-to-speech remarkable on some level. Moreover, my colleagues do not have a black lab interrupting their conference calls with snoring. So, true diversity and inclusion requires a shared vision for improving the face of our workplaces and professions.
The diversity people with disabilities bring to the table adds to the public policy arena. With an increasingly diverse face of public policy leadership, it is important to recall that all of us have the possibility to have a disability in the life cycle. So, disability is an integral part of diversity and inclusion efforts.
Elevating Public Service
I recently co-presented at a major conference at American University also discussing how we must increase diversity and inclusion of those with disabilities in public affairs. We urged continued progress in increasing our ideas of diversity and inclusion to include, in an active way, disability-related concerns.
Our legal profession needs to increase its recruitment, inclusion, and retention of lawyers with disabilities. By doing so, our public policy will arguably be amplified.
Lawyers are often involved in some form of public sector engagement or work, such as serving in the federal government. For instance, I have been the first dog handler in prestigious programs, such as the Presidential Management Fellowship adding a different voice to public policy. Articles in the ABA have observed that, while progress has been slowly achieved, many lawyers with disabilities tend to be limited in their career options – often to the federal government.
It is an honor to serve the public. Do not misunderstand me. The federal workforce consisted approximately of 14 percent of people with disabilities in 2015 or in 2016. While a positive, progress must be achieved. A need also exists for these placements to be at higher levels. I want, however, the full range of options open to me and to all professionals with disabilities to revolve from the private sector to the public sector. Or, vice versa.
Breaking open those doors will require a collaborative, informed approach. Some of the following Resources and tools may help you.
• Consider organizations, such as the Disability Rights Bar Association as well as the National Association of Lawyers with Disabilities.
• Consider adopting the affirmative recruitment and hiring pledge found at the ABA’s Commission on Disability Rights.
• Consider what you need to do in being accommodations or modifications oriented and proactive. Find organizations, such as the American Foundation for the Blind for information on tech accessibility.
In closing, disability is a part of diversity. Diversity and inclusion efforts to incorporate the talents of the differently abled in the 21st century must be at the forefront of opportunities in the legal profession, in the nonprofit sector, and in the political arena.
Gary C. Norman, Esq. L.L.M. serves as the Chair of the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights. In 2018, he received a mini grant from the German Marshall Fund of the U.S. co-facilitating a series of public policy dialogues on international disability policy.
On July 22, he will speak on a panel, organized by him in partnership with a local ACS state chapter.