On November 10th 2014, the first ever ‘Disability and the City’ conference was held. Organised by Aspiring Solicitors, hosted by PwC, co-sponsored by PwC and Reed Smith and attended by a representatives from a range of firms and companies, the event was a chance for attendees to learn more about the adjustments on offer for people with disabilities and the changing city culture around disability.
The event proper kicked off with a session on physical disability, with PwC’s James Hallam and Clyde & Co’s Yasmin Sheikh speaking. Yasmin, a chair user, spoke about her experience of becoming disabled and how people viewed her differently before and after – she felt that while people are often more sympathetic towards people with visible disabilities, too often this can spill over into patronising behaviour. However, Yasmin and James also spoke about the support they’d received from their respective employers, and encouraged others in the audience not to be discouraged from applying due to disability.
The following session on hidden disabilities was also fascinating, generating a lot of debate and diverse views on disability from the panellists themselves. PwC’s Amanda Rowland, Kirkland & Ellis’s Warren Stapley and Judge and Barrister Fayyaz Afzal OBE spoke. Warren discussed how to differentiate firm culture by how they deal with disabled applicants. Having received training contract offers from two firms several years ago, for example, Warren chose the firm which offered to pay for new, top-of-the-range hearing aids for him – allowing him to work more effectively and boost his productivity. And Fayyaz offered some helpful advice on when it was appropriate to discuss your disability with a client (the answer? When it’s relevant to the job. And if so, it’s far better to wait until introductions have been made and the client feels at ease – “Hello, I’m blind!” isn’t exactly the smoothest introduction you can make).
After this, there was a session on hidden disabilities, with the Government Legal Service’s Andrew Dakoutros, EY’s Paul Scantlebury and PwC’s Andrew Boucher – who was unique among the panel in not having a disability himself, instead having a son with Asperger Syndrome. The panel discussed the specific difficulties faced by people with hidden disabilities – rather than being viewed as less capable, for example, people often treat them just like people without disabilities – since they ‘can’t see anything “wrong” with them’ – and hold them to higher standards, often unempathetic to their differences. The panel was confident, however – as am I – that these issues can be tackled going forward, with greater awareness of hidden disabilities and their effects.
When it came to the ‘Transportation and Inferences’ session, it was particularly interesting to hear from Jane Hatton, founder of disabled jobseeker service Evenbreak. She detailed how her service makes the business case for employing disabled people, focusing on some of their specialist strengths (for example, the tendency for some people with autism or Asperger’s to be skilled in IT, at spotting patterns, in being punctual and thorough, and loyalty to an employer).
Jane herself has written literature on this, and some of the figures she quoted – such as disabled people being conclusively shown to work harder, longer, and more conscientiously – was incredibly helpful. As somebody with autism myself, it was refreshing to see such an acknowledgement of the strengths certain disabilities can bring. Peter Wright from Transport for London also spoke, detailing the adjustments TfL have recently been making to accommodate people with physical disabilities.
Following this, Kevan Skelton, Reed Smith’s EME Director of Global Recruiting and Human Resources, took the stand to discuss recruitment experiences from his side of the situation, again speaking about the business case for disability and diversity. Reed Smith’s Graduate Recruiter Ella Keefe then spoke on corporate responsibility and inclusivity, alongside a PwC representative, and spoke about the efforts Reed Smith have taken to make their trainee intake as diverse as possible.
For example, for the past two years they’ve guaranteed at least two places on their vacation schemes for people with disabilities, recently taking on five last year. They’re also working with My Plus Consulting, Great with Disability and Employability, and have attended/will be attending Open to Law. As a current vac scheme/training contract applicant, I have to say that Reed Smith really stand out as going the extra mile to attract talented disabled applicants and display disability-confidence.
The event then ended with a networking session where I was able to talk further with several speakers and attendees, building relationships and gleaming more information. My initial response to Disability and the City was highly positive – for the first event of its kind, it did a great job in providing a platform for discussion on such an important, yet neglected, avenue of diversity and in differentiating between different kinds of disability.
Putting on my ‘autistic hat’ for a minute, I think the next event could be improved with self-advocacy from an employee with autism, and with greater understanding of the sensory issues autism often involves in the ‘sensory disabilities’ section. But regardless, the event was great in speaking on the diverse nature of disability – disability can affect people differently depending on race, gender, sexuality, class, and even the wide range of disabilities themselves – and avoided pigeonholing any person or disability. (On that diversity note, if you want to read a female view on the conference, you should definitely check out attendee April Birring’s blog for Aspiring Solicitors!)
Many thanks to PwC for hosting, attending and sponsoring, and to Reed Smith for co-organising and co-sponsoring. Thanks also Waqas Zaib, member (now Chair) of the Lawyers with Disabilities division of the Law Society; Jane Burton, its then-Deputy Vice Chair (now Vice Chair); and Chris White, the founder of Aspiring Solicitors, all of whom invested a huge amount of time and effort. Here’s hoping Disability and the City 2015 will be just as successful!