The responsibility to create diverse and inclusive environments is part of a business’s success. Not only is it a moral obligation, but also it brings a range of benefits. This responsibility can also be seen as part of a business’s adherence to the rule of law, particularly when connected to its legal obligations to avoid discrimination. Further, the rule of law is enhanced by including many perspectives in the legal system. For an enterprise to reflect its customers and employees, it must include people with disabilities.
People with disabilities represent 27.2 percent of people living in the United States according to a November 2018 report of the US Census Bureau, and yet employers have much to do to improve their inclusion in organizations, the economy, and our societies.
The legal profession is no exception to this: it needs to do a better job of employing and including all professionals with disabilities. In fact, as Michelle DeVos of Holland & Knight wrote in an October 2020 piece about the need to break down more barriers for attorneys with disabilities, “The legal profession is one of the least diverse professions in the nation.”
The National Association for Law Placement (NALP) published research in December 2022 indicating that law firms consisted only of 1.2% of lawyers with disabilities in 2021. The NALP piece also notes that law school graduates with disabilities were more likely to hold some other marginalized identities. As it’s Pride Month, it’s worth noting that graduates with disabilities from the Class of 2021 were more than twice as likely to identify as LGBTQ compared to the class overall; people with disabilities can experience the workplace and discrimination in it differently depending on other aspects of their identities. In its 2019 Report on Diversity in U.S. Law Firms, NALP also reported: “Just under half of one percent of partners (0.46%) self-reported as having a disability in 2019, down slightly from 0.52% in 2018.”
Employing people with disabilities is a rule of law issue. The World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index, which evaluates the rule of law in countries around the world on an annual basis, includes absence of employment discrimination within its measurements. As part of evaluating whether the rule of law in a country is strong enough to deliver fundamental human rights, sub-factor 4.1, “Equal treatment and absence of discrimination,” measures “whether individuals are free from discrimination… with respect to public services, employment, court proceedings, and the justice system.”
Hiring people with disabilities is not only the right thing to do from a moral and rule of law standpoint, but it can also provide a range of benefits to the enterprise. First, hiring people with disabilities can improve an employer’s reputation and public image. In today’s society, consumers are increasingly looking for providers that are committed to diversity and inclusion, and hiring people with disabilities can help the employer stand out positively.
Second, hiring people with disabilities can bring a unique perspective and set of skills to the organization. People with disabilities often have to overcome challenges and develop creative solutions. They may also have expertise in areas related to disability law, such as special education or accessibility laws. Accordingly, they are excellent members of a legal team that is focused on offering creative solutions and can have a piece of deep knowledge about problems the project can face.
Third, hiring people with disabilities can help an employer comply with various laws. For example, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities, and the failure to do so can result in legal consequences. By hiring and appropriately providing accommodations to people with disabilities, an employer can proactively meet one aspect of its obligations under the ADA and avoid potential legal issues. The ADA served as inspiration for the later framework developed by Mexico and other countries in enacting the United Nations’ Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).
The work to be inclusive and equitable doesn’t stop at hiring. One international investment bank includes employees and allies of people with disabilities by creating an employee resource group. (Notably, one of the group’s founders, Meg Cimino, is an American lawyer who has spoken to the American Bar Association Business Law Section.)
Further, the UK government recently funded a report through its organization DRILL (Disability Research on Independent Living & Learning) to learn more about career experiences of disabled people in the legal profession. It shows that lawyers with disabilities face bias and makes detailed recommendations to employers and the profession at large to address issues in hiring and in the workplace. Even though the recommendations were made in the UK context, they would also help employers in other jurisdictions. In one example, the recommendations supported efforts by professional associations to support lawyers with disabilities through organizations like the ABA Commission on Disability Rights in the United States. (In one illustration of the support businesses can have for disability inclusion when working with professional organizations, the ABA partnered with a major international business to support law students with disabilities through a summer internship program.)
Employers internationally should ensure disability is part of their DEI efforts. Consideration of ability status belongs alongside thoughtful attention to race, gender, sexual orientation, and religion in both social and corporate legal environments. As part of that, not only organizations’ work environments but also their digital offerings, websites, and mobile apps should be accessible to and usable for people of all abilities. As the AccessAbility Works podcast says, in addition to “the value of true inclusion,” “maximizing the full use and functionality of digital platforms and technologies makes good business sense.”
To hire effectively and support people with disabilities (whether employees or customers), employers should take a few fundamental steps. First, they should make sure their physical space is accessible, with features such as ramps and accessible bathrooms. They should also provide any necessary accommodations, such as assistive technology or modified work schedules. Additionally, employers should provide training to their staff on disability awareness and inclusion. This can help ensure that people with disabilities are treated with respect and given the support they need to thrive.
In conclusion, hiring people with disabilities is not only the right thing to do, but it can also bring a range of benefits to an employer. By creating an inclusive and diverse work environment, a business can improve its reputation, bring unique perspectives and skills to its team, and comply with the law.
Employers can play a key role in promoting inclusion, diversity, equity, and access (IDEA) in their organizations and creating a more inclusive legal profession. All employers need to prioritize the hiring, retention, and promotion of people with disabilities to create a more diverse and inclusive workplace.
Note that the term employer follows the broad practice of the American Bar Association Business Law Section and does not refer to the work environment. The work environment can be a government entity, a company, a nonprofit organization, a law firm, etc. ↑
Table 11 in the report (“Lawyers with Disabilities — 2019,” page 30) provides more details. ↑