If there was one thing I never imagined when I was 16 and planning my final years of high school in order to pursue a career in law, it would be that I would be disabled while doing so.
When I was diagnosed at age 21, I didn’t stop to think about how it would affect me long term outside of a medical context. And for a while, I could pretend it didn’t. At least until, the wheels fell off.
The first hurdle was navigating time off from my part-time job in a law firm to have endo surgery. Then, in August 2018, it was taking two weeks of leave without pay while I was hospitalised for gastroparesis, and a further week to recover. From there, it was trying to juggle my many appointments to fall on non-working days, or trying to coax coworkers into swapping shifts with me so that I didn’t have to go without medical care, because I needed to work those hours to afford that care.
These days, it’s a balance that, although I’m far from mastering, I’m getting much better at. The important thing is find the boundary of how much you’re comfortable with disclosing in a professional environment. In the past, this has meant that work has known that I had ‘health issues’, but not my diagnosis or that I am actually disabled. When I have to take time off, I usually just state that I am ‘unwell’, provide a medical certificate if required, but do not provide additional detail.
When I’ve had to have surgery or come in to work visibly injured, I’ve started being a little more open about it. I’ve started saying that ‘I have a connective tissue disorder’, so I feel like I’m slowly starting to lay the ground work to have a more open and frank discussion with HR about the fact that I’m disabled and I am starting to need more accommodations at work.
My role is now different at work too. While before I was a part-time office assistant, and later paralegal, in October I was admitted as a lawyer to the Supreme Court of New South Wales, and was promoted to a full-time associate’s position in the firm I’ve been at for almost three years. My hours are now longer, the tasks more complex, and the stakes higher.
Having that conversation about disability is becoming more and more of a priority- like many people, COVID lockdowns and working from home have given me access to flexibility and accommodations I would never have been given had I asked for them in a pre-COVID world, but now that Sydney is transitioning back to ‘normal’, I need to speak up and advocate for myself.
The accomodations that I need to advocate for include:
- Continued working from home: WFH days twice a week actually allow me to be better at my job by allowing my body the downtime it needs. I can also attend my regular medical appointments on those days, which keep me functioning at the high level I need to in order to not only do my job, but also enjoy a good quality of life.
- New ergonomic office chair: The generic one I currently use is causing pain and injury to my neck, back and pelvis, which is in turn preventing me from giving my work my full attention as part of me is always focused on that discomfort. Work has, in the past, arranged for occupational therapist assessments of staff’s workstations, so I know it’s not even particularly out of the norm, and there’s even government assistance for employers to implement disability accommodations.
- Understanding that I may need to take leave without pay if I exhaust my personal leave: I acknowledge that my health is unpredictable, and that there’s no way of knowing how much time off I’ll need in a year. I need to make work aware of the fact that I may need to take additional health-related leave.
The biggest problem I’ve faced working as a disabled lawyer is fear. Fear of someone finding out that I am disabled. My disability is invisible, and so I have hid behind omissions and half-truths because I’ve been afraid. Afraid of not being hired, or promoted. Afraid of being seen as unreliable, or a liability. Afraid of being judged, of being talked about, of being accused of faking for not ‘looking disabled’.
And yes, I now recognise how harmful this is, to myself and the community. I have forced myself to endure conditions which I am not capable of working under. I have prevented my own access to help and resources by not reaching out, after all, they cannot help me if they don’t know I need help.
I have also perpetuated the idea that disability was something to hide in the workplace, that it was something to keep to yourself so that there was nothing ‘othering’ that would prevent you from advancing in the same way as your peers. This is harmful. It perpetuated the harmful, ableist stereotype that disability is something to be ashamed of. That disability makes you somewhat lesser. It. Does. Not.
I’m learning to be inwardly proud of my identity as a disabled person. I have achieved so much, both for an average young professional in my field, and as someone who has had to deal with the additional challenges posed by disability, such as accessibility, barriers to education, and having to take time away from work to deal with my health. It’s time I’m outwardly proud of that too. By telling my coworkers, I can challenge their perceptions of disability, and by being involved in advocacy, I can show that is possible to be working as a lawyer while being disabled.