Disability is a club with open membership that no one wants to join. Considerations to help you become a more inclusive lawyer are offered in this guest post from Mary F. Connelly, Esq.
I am an attorney with a mobility impairment and have been invited to share my personal experiences and professional observations about ableism in the legal profession, in observance of July as both Disability Pride Month and the 30th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act’s passage. I embrace this task and hope that by the end of this blog you might begin considering how you and your firm, agency, or law practice might include practitioners with disabilities going forward.
- Disability is a fluid concept. COVID 19 has helped us all realize that we can be healthy one day but not the next. Within the disability community, persons without disabilities often are referred to as TAB’s for “temporarily abled bodied.” If we all remember how ephemeral health can be, we will be more receptive to the inclusion of colleagues with a variety of disabilities. We may even see the day when bar membership is routinely a diploma privilege, eliminating bar examinations that disserve applicants with stamina limitations.
- When I was a brand new lawyer, I was somehow prone to thinking that fellow attorneys naturally understood cross-disability accessibility laws and regulations. Thus, I would show up at meetings and belatedly learn that my wheelchair could not navigate a narrow doorway or fit into a restroom stall. Now, while I thoroughly research locations that are unfamiliar to me, I still occasionally encounter barriers. You can be an ally by doing your best to ensure that your practice location is accessible to persons with mobility impairments so that it allows physical access to and within your practice. You can be even more helpful if you and your staff familiarize yourself with the availability of accessible parking and public transit near your practice location so that you can answer questions from interested callers like me.
- Interviews are similar to other meetings but can present unique challenges. Applicants with disabilities are entitled to keep their disabilities confidential to avoid initial discrimination and thus could show up for interviews without providing advance notice of their disability. I recall decades ago being interviewed in a common area after my wheelchair could not navigate a turn into a conference room, and more recently hoping that I would not have an accident before an interview even started after an accessible restroom turned out to be an elevator ride away from the interview location. In Crip Camp, a 2020 disability advocacy documentary, activist Judith Heumann, at one point laments having to be grateful for an accessible restroom. At that one memorable interview, however, I surely thought reaching a bathroom without having an accident was a genuine miracle. So when you are scheduling interviews, please ensure that the location is barrier-free and that you know where the nearest accessible restroom is. As a Diversity Officer within the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, I frequently reminded potential interviewers and interviewees that interviews are not casual conversations, that they should partner with each other to keep interviews focused on the candidate’s knowledge, skills, and abilities. If you are worried about missteps, United Spinal Association offers comprehensive cross-disability tips on disability etiquette. Online on Monster and elsewhere, there are legal guidelines for interviewing. Whether you are an interviewer or an interviewee, I advise you to be flexible and open-minded to possible enrichment of your experience.
- Part of being flexible and open-minded involves resisting new and revisiting old preconceived notions you might have about the capabilities of practitioners with disabilities. Throughout my public sector career, I have been mistaken for a client innumerable times – perhaps occasionally attributable to my wearing casual clothes without buttons and zippers because they help maximize my independence.
- Because work has been positively life altering for me, I enjoy offering informational interviews to other persons with disabilities to share with them what robust reasonable accommodation can accomplish. Because so much of law practice involves participating in conversation, many assume that deaf people cannot be effective lawyers; however, my personal experiences conversing with a deaf attorney colleague demonstrate that interpreters and various technology tools can facilitate almost seamless communication. Similarly, I have observed blind manager colleagues achieve success with a mix of readers and technology tools.
- Even if you cannot commit much time, you as a law practitioner have concrete ways to support inclusion. As one example, October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM), and within NDEAM, Disability Mentoring Day could provide you with an opportunity to make a difference. If you are interested in learning more about ways in which your law practice can support NDEAM and Disability Mentoring Day, please reach out to Mass Office on Disability for guidance. You could also attend open meetings of your municipality’s Disability Commission and offer suggestions about how your municipality can advance its access and inclusion agenda.
We are all one illness or accident away from acquiring disability, as I mentioned at the outset of my blog post; those of us with congenital conditions just get a head start. If disability should happen to impact you, I hope that you can find a way to continue your career. Reform that moves the legal profession closer to full inclusion of practitioners with disabilities is likely to be incremental. However, I hope that this blog has helped inspire you to be a part of that change since a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step indeed.
 The Massachusetts Office on Disability [MOD], the lead disability resource in the Commonwealth, “works to ensure that people with disabilities in the Commonwealth can equally participate in all aspects of life. MOD serves as a resource to state agencies, municipalities, and members of the general public by providing information and guidance on matters concerning disability related civil rights, equal access, and opportunity.” Its website is: https://www.mass.gov/orgs/massachusetts-office-on-disability. MOD’s website offers information on many topics including available Disability Commissions.
 The quotation is from Chapter 64 of the Dao De Jing ascribed to Laozi, and reminds us that even the longest and most complicated ventures have a starting point.
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Mary F. Connelly, Esq. currently serves as Classification and Compensation Lead at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Health and Human Services. She previously served as Diversity Director, ADA Coordinator and HR Liaison at the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission; as a Diversity Officer at the Executive Office of Health and Human Resources; and as the Assistant Civil Rights Administrator at Massachusetts Department of Mental Health. Before transitioning to state service, Mary was a staff attorney for nine years at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute. Mary is a cum laude graduate of Merrimack College and received her J.D. from Boston University. She has been licensed to practice law in Massachusetts since 1985. She has additional training and certifications on responding to requests for reasonable accommodations and discrimination prevention. Mary has received numerous awards and honors for her public service, including an appointment by then Governor Michael Dukakis to the Massachusetts Architectural Access Board [MAAB] and the 2018 Public Interest Law Project award from Boston University School of Law.