Give me your hand.
Make room for me
to lead and follow
you
beyond this rage of poetry.

Let others have
the privacy of
touching words
and love of loss
of love.

For me
Give me your hand.  
(A Conceit, Maya Anglelou)

 

We are now in the year 2021 and still having to promote the need for ‘EDI’ (equality, diversity and inclusion) policies. While gender and race inequalities are now much discussed, this is not the case for inequalities faced by the Neurodiverse. 

Neuroscience has identified that there are natural genetic variations in our brain circuitry (neural pathways) which affect sociability, attention and the processing of information. Some argue that from these variations emerge not only neurodevelopmental conditions, such as dyslexia, epilepsy and Asperger’s Syndrome, but also positive gifts. After all, different situations can call for the mind to be wired differently.

The sociologist Judy Singer, responsible for coining the term ‘neurodiversity’, argues that being ‘neurologically different’ should be added to the more familiar categories of class, gender, race etc. This, in turn, augments our social insights into disability; recognising that these are not pathological disorders for which there is a ‘cure’, but instead that special provision is required to remove the barriers that are disabling. 

Research by the Law Society’s Lawyers with Disabilities Division (LDD), in partnership with Cardiff University, was published in Legally Disabled? (January 2020) and presents a disturbing picture. This report examined the experiences of disabled lawyers in the profession and the unconscious bias shown towards those with a neurodisability, largely because of the absence of empathy, knowledge, inclination to research, or support from others.

The COVID-19 pandemic, however, has demonstrated that we live in an increasingly complex society, where we meet constant battles that challenge us. Although we had no experience of what we were dealing with, we quickly gathered information, set up research and devised ways to cope. We shared information with each other.

We addressed issues of lockdown mental health, searching out mindfulness apps and the latest virtual yoga guru or fitness instructor. We worked together. Our family relationships and friendships have been tested. We thought of ways of being supportive at a ‘deeper level’.

We witnessed the perils of economic disadvantages, from occupation and housing hazards to associated health inequalities. We heard of challenges faced by people who required special provision. We weeped for people we did not know, upon hearing of the daily death tolls and prayed in gratitude that it was not us. We empathised as we have never before. 

Our recent experience as a collective during the pandemic has given us something of an insight as to what individuals experience when they are diagnosed with a neural challenge - particularly when it is later in life and they know little about it. They are left, as we were at the beginning of the pandemic, with the panic of gathering as much information as they can, searching as many sources of information, perhaps turning to academic research papers and then settling down to cope. They seek out support from friends, family, and virtual networks, while at the same time finding themselves isolated.

Emerging initiatives

In November, LDD’s latest research showed how disabled lawyers have been affected by COVID-19 and how increased remote working and more flexibility with reasonable adjustments could make the legal profession more accessible.

Lockdown gave us more time in our hands, and that time allowed us to think of issues that we would, otherwise, have been distracted from. The contemplation of events gave rise to movements for change. Introspection prompted organisational initiatives.  

One such charitable initiative is Bridging the Bar, a charity focused on enabling students from non-traditional backgrounds to gain practical work experience with barristers, including those with neural disabilities. The other is more specialized, and recently founded: Neurodiversity in Law seeks to promote and support neurodiversity within the legal professions and eliminate the stigma, beyond obtaining the exercise of duties under the Equality Act 2010.

I have been asked to speak virtually at many different university and association events about diversity and inclusion, not because I want to be a poster child for the cause but because I have always believed that the Bar should be representative of society. A large proportion of the population is neurodiverse.

The legal profession has a prominent role in bringing about social change. What greater advantage in giving voice to the voiceless, than to have something of the experience of those we advocate for? 

Barriers to entry

When, at the age of 18, a computer questionnaire decided that my personality was best suited to the barristers’ profession, it simultaneously informed me that it was one of the most competitive professions to enter. I thought that it was going to be impossible for someone like me to become a barrister, and that was largely because of how the profession speaks of itself. This can be a psychological barrier. When presented with the more obvious role models - brilliant minds from privileged backgrounds - the imagination of the Neurodiverse can become ‘walled’ against what is actually achievable.

Is it any wonder then, that there is an historic reluctance from the Neurodiverse to enter the profession? In this competitive market of so many eloquent and socially gifted individuals, one can quite easily feel bereft of the self-confidence to endure the gruelling application process for pupillage.

I cannot say how many barristers with neurological disabilities enter the profession. Research for Legally Disabled found that of the 66% who said they had a disability, only one person declared it.

This is staggering when one considers how wide the range of disabilities is. Neurological disabilities cover a broad range from childhood attachment disorders, ADHD, epilepsy, dyslexia, dyspraxia, Asperger’s Syndrome and many others. These neural variations are, of course, not a bar to achieving academically and many will have identified the necessary provisions to put them on an equal playing field during school or university.

However, the level of academic achievement and the skill which the individual has acquired in coping with their disorder can also mean that it is ‘hidden’ to potential recruiters, unless the individual is encouraged to disclose it.

Progress within the profession

From my experience, the neurodiverse individual comes into the profession well prepared, having already planned out their coping strategies. However, that won’t mean that it will not be at a personal cost to them or indeed to the profession itself which, as we all know, while rewarding, can be incredibly stressful. This might mean chambers eventually losing talented members.      

Added to this is the fear of oversensitivity that you might encounter. In the inherently ‘ableist’ culture at the Bar, well-intentioned care can lead to exclusion from challenging work, irrespective of your skills and abilities.

Then there is the self-perception, because you have not benefited from what Lady Justice Simler refers to as the ‘virtuous circle’. If there are no senior neurodiverse role models, then you are left with the anticipation of discrimination that can stunt your progress in the profession.

Social inequalities have always been at their most exaggerated in entering the legal profession; far worse in progressing in the profession to take silk. Worse still for those with neurodiversity. I do not think I have ever heard anyone disclose their neurodiverse challenge at pupillage application stage and I do not know of any silk with a known neural disability.

Now more than ever, with advancement in neuroscience, traits previously unidentifiable are now categorised by diagnostic tools. In some cases, they are identified at the lower end of the spectrum where the existence of the disorder may not be obvious. 

Interestingly, HHJ Dhir, who was diagnosed with dyslexia later in life after her daughter’s diagnosis, recently shared her experiences to mark Neurodiversity Celebration Week. She said: ‘Judges now come in all shapes in sizes. I would say in many ways the Bar and the judiciary are ideal professions for dyslexics and individuals with other special needs, because as judges we have experience of difficulty.’

Ideas to encourage neuro EDI

Legally Disabled found some really disturbing behaviour towards those with disabilities, usually meted out by people without knowledge or foresight that disabilities might be experienced by those within their immediate circle or in a country without sophisticated equalities legislation in place. Whether this behaviour is because of conscious or unconscious bias, is a matter for my next article.

However, the report has made some important recommendations for encouraging diversity and inclusion:

  1. There should be more work experience for those with disabilities.
  2. Design mini-pupillages having the disability in mind, giving the individual opportunity to showcase their skills and improve their confidence.
  3. Encourage disclosure by asking questions around what would best help the individual to demonstrate their abilities.
  4. Provide appropriate disability training within chambers.
  5. Obtain appropriate input from those with disabilities on how to improve access.
  6. Source and promote more disabled people as mentors.
  7. Use the support of virtual networks, such as Neurodiversity in the Law and the Association of Disabled Lawyers.

The pandemic has demonstrated how quickly we can act as individuals or organisations to equip ourselves with the necessary information, learn to empathise and provide flexible technological ways in which we can all work.

We know that we can make ‘room’ - accommodate and support the Neurodiverse - and we should do so. They might just have the attributes to bring fresh, empathetical, and other beneficial perspectives to our profession.