Konstantina Nouka is a hugely talented, bright and beautiful overseas student who planned to have a career in astrophysics. She is a Greek citizen and went to the impressive Greek Embassy in Holland Park in order to renew her passport. When she got there, she was unable to enter the building. The staff had to come and deal with her application in the street. She was embarrassed, ashamed and downright furious.

She went shopping in Harrods and was unable to gain access to the department she wanted to visit. She complained. She was given a voucher for a champagne tea. She does not drink alcohol.

Konstantina was unable to gain access to these buildings because she has Ullrich Muscular Dystrophy and this means that she has to use a wheelchair. The condition does not affect her speech. Her speech is often considered to be affected by her illness. If you close your eyes and listen to her, you realise immediately that that opinion is the consequence of unconscious bias.

These exclusions caused a flame of injustice to burn in Konstantina and she made the courageous decision to become a barrister; to fight for rights of inclusivity and accessibility for everyone.

In the first year of her degree, when she told a lecturer that she was intending to be a barrister, he told her not to. He explained that the profession was extremely competitive, that someone like her would not make it and that she should seek an office-based job as a solicitor if she must be a lawyer, but that she would be better as an academic. As Konstantina said to me: ‘I am an immigrant with an accent and a wheelchair. That is all that people see and hear. Once they see the wheelchair, they stop seeing me.’

Konstantina did not accept that advice. She continued with her studies. Her classmates did not expect as much from her as they did from themselves, so she was praised for completing work to an average standard. Everyone wrote Konstantina off, except her. She is now studying for her LLM in Human Rights at UCL and intends to pursue a career in human rights and criminal law. She will be undertaking the Bar Course in September 2022. Alongside her studies, she is an intern researcher for the UCL Public International Law Pro-Bono Project and volunteers with Amicus ALJ.

She has to be five times better than her able-bodied classmates to be taken seriously. Her funding does not stretch far enough as not all of her treatment is covered by the NHS and she works part-time in order to fund that. She is often in pain, and tired, but you would never know that. Konstantina knows that in order to progress she needs to be brighter and better than the competition.

She has managed to undertake one mini pupillage but it was not an enabling experience.

James Ekin has the opposite difficulty. He appears to be perfectly ‘normal’ because his disability is hidden. James is visually impaired, as well as epileptic, and has a complex medical condition called Hydrocephalus. He has had almost 30 brain surgeries. He is currently completing his Masters in Human Rights, Globalisation and Justice at Keele University, specialising in Public International Law and Laws of Armed Conflict. He is also a legal intern with the International Bar Association in London and a charity trustee. Previously, James worked as a researcher to the UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery.

For much of the time he can function without any obvious difficulty but then he can fall over, trip on the stairs, be unable to drink from a cup or spill his drink. He is determined to succeed as a barrister and has worked harder than anyone to be perceived as normal. His parents worked tirelessly in order to provide him with a private education in the mistaken belief that he would receive bespoke assistance with his medical and neurological difficulties far beyond what state school might offer. Having had brain surgery in the middle of his GCSEs he moved to another school for A levels with the promise of genuine care for his disabilities. It never materialised. At university, despite promises to the contrary, he was treated exactly the same as other students, given no extra time or facilities and he struggled to achieve in those circumstances. However, unlike Konstantina, James masked his disability by volunteering to do everything. He was the ‘go to’ guy for all associations and schemes. His fellow students knew of his disabilities but only understood them after James had further surgery during his degree. Seeing the bandages on his head and the bleeding that came from them meant that his fellow students realised that James was a person who had significant difficulties. These educated young people needed a physical image to understand the disability underneath. James is determined that he can make the progress of the next generation easier.

James had more luck with mini pupillages but cannot go through the scanners in court buildings because of his surgeries. He cannot take a sip from his drink without running the risk of spilling it on his immaculate white shirt and tie.

I met Konstantina and James in a number of Zoom meetings dealing with access to the profession. They asked me to become a patron of Bringing [Dis]Ability to the Bar (BDABar). Konstantina formed BDABar with James so that school and university students are not discouraged from joining the profession but, instead, are encouraged by others who have walked the same journey that they now take. Both are passionate that their organisation will not be used by legal professionals who wish to donate an amount in order to appease their social conscience and who then do nothing to make things change. They want to see real change for students.

BDABar aims to improve accessibility, support and inclusivity at the Bar and to dismantle the barriers that disabled aspiring barristers face and how we perceive their disabilities. They will research, educate, and enable a two-way mentoring scheme. Their research findings and practical experiences will be used to improve accessibility to the Bar and to ensure that disabled candidates are able to join and progress in our profession. They will press for adequate financial and practical support for disabled students who are undertaking their LLB, GDL, LLM and Bar Course and critically assess the diversity and inclusion policies, mini pupillage and pupillage processes of all of our institutions.

How can you help?

BDABar needs mentors from within the profession to offer advice and assistance at all stages of the mentee’s journey. They aim to produce a series of policies and procedures to assist the Bar in its desire to be inclusive and to provide lectures and seminars for us all to help to educate us as to how to get it right. This is a brilliant organisation. If you wish to become a mentor or to assist in any way, please email: chair@bdabar.org. For more information see: www.bdabar.org