WIPR Influential Women in IP 2020
The report calls for a zero tolerance policy on
ill-treatment and bullying of disabled people in the
profession, but this can be done only if there is a better
understanding of what constitutes ill-treatment.
Foster believes that opening up workplace
conversations is required to educate people—as was
the case with mental health—but it’s not enough to
rely on people’s goodwill.
“Clear disciplinary and reporting procedures need
to be established on what constitutes ill-treatment
in relation to disability and how it can be logged
and investigated,” she says, adding that professional
associations and regulators need to establish a
working party to develop further guidelines for
employers and disabled people.
How can this culture and its associated barriers
be overcome? First of all, the profession needs to
acknowledge it’s missing out on a pool of talent.
“There’s some resistance within the profession from
those who don’t see the value of increased diversity,
but I hope we can win them over by explaining the
barriers some people face and demonstrating the
value they can bring to roles in IP,” says Privett.
Many disabled people bring skills to their role
which are developed as a consequence of their
impairment or illness, says Foster. This can include
good interpersonal skills, empathy, dealing with
difficult people and situations, multiskilling and
multitasking, prioritising, and time management.
“These skills have been developed from years of
negotiating an ‘ableist’ society and situations that do
not include them,” she adds.
Begum, who offhandedly calls herself the ‘poster
girl for diversity’—she’s a black and minority ethnic
(BAME) woman with rheumatoid arthritis—turned
her disability into one of her unique selling points.
“It made me more resilient, more resourceful in the
way I approach challenges,” she recalls.
The other priority must be to educate, inform and
train personnel on how the law facilitates reasonable
Foster warns that a basic understanding of what
‘reasonable adjustments’ are was lacking. “Put simply,
lawyers need to understand disability employment
law. Not only do they need to comply with it, they
need to think of how its creative use would benefit
their organisation,” she says.
Most important of all is communication.
“Employees understand the difficulties they
face better than anyone else so it helps when
employers listen to their employees and trust them
to understand what adjustments need to be made
without challenging them,” adds Privett.
Open communication can not only help
individuals get the support they need, but can begin
to normalise reasonable adjustments, encouraging
more diverse candidates to join the profession.
Without it, we’re at a standstill. l
In other words, seniority and achievements
don’t necessarily protect disabled people from
discrimination or exclusion.
“There are also more subtle indicators of success in
the profession that some disabled people can find are
difficult to achieve. These include subjective factors
such as looking right, behaving in a certain way, or
simply being able to sustain certain types of working
or networking activities,” Foster adds.
This is further evidenced by the finding that more
than half of the solicitors and paralegals believe their
career and promotion prospects are inferior to those
of non-disabled colleagues.
These obstacles don’t exist only within the four
walls of law firms—according to Onwe, architectural
barriers are still prevalent in Nigeria.
“Most courtrooms and workplaces in Nigeria are
inaccessible. Our court procedures are blind to the
requirements of people with disabilities,” he says.
The finding that Foster found most difficult to accept
from her study was that disabled people’s career
experiences were highly dependent on one or two
individuals they met in the workplace, rather than
robust and fair policies and practices.
“If they were lucky enough to meet a line manager,
supervisor or senior person who was supportive
and understood reasonable adjustments, they
“However, the majority did not, and they commonly
experienced bullying, harassment, a failure to make
appropriate adjustments and inevitably, further
ill-health,” she adds.
Particularly for lawyers, Foster had expected a
better understanding of employment law around
basic rights to request workplace adjustments, but the
findings suggested this wasn’t the case.
“This was very apparent in interviews where
we found individuals had been prevented from
progressing. We came across cases where previously
successful talented lawyers were driven out of the
profession or into self-employment,” Foster says.
It gets worse. Cardiff University’s report found
that a significant proportion of disabled people have
experienced forms of disability-related ill-treatment,
bullying, or discrimination, with 60% of solicitors
and paralegals experiencing ill-treatment in the
Of these, 80% believe the ill-treatment was related
to their disability. Among barristers, the figures
were 45% and 71%, respectively, with examples of
ill-treatment including ridiculing or demeaning
language, exclusion or victimisation.
“Although IP firms, and other employers of disabled
IP professionals, can’t change society as a whole, they
can help. For example, employers need to make it clear
that this form of bullying and discrimination is just as
unacceptable as other forms,” adds Marianne Privett,
partner at AA Thornton and co-chair of IP Ability.
Disability in law
Husnara Begum, Husnara