Disability and the Practice of Law

“There was no difference between men, in intelligence or race, so profound as the difference between the sick and the well.” – The Great Gatsby 

We often talk about how the law discriminates against people with disabilities. But not much attention is given to how the structure of practicing law discriminates against people with disabilities. Technology has eased some of the burden. But we have a long way to go.

The way we practice law is in itself discriminatory against people with disabilities. For example, litigation requires lawyers to read lots of material, write lots of material, listen to lots of material, and focus on lots of material. The hours can be gruelling. And many forms of disabilities can make these seemingly simple tasks turn into uphill battles.

For example, how does one with a visual impairment sift through case law with the same ease as someone without? We produce case law in tiny, hard to read font, with no automatic audio format available. Furthermore, our databases require us to read quickly to find cases quickly. Placing those with a visual impairment at a distinct disadvantage.

The same can be said for writing. Although dictaphones and dictation features on computers have eased the burden, writing remains to be a very visual intensive experience. And much of the practice of law entails writing.

Similarly, litigators with hearing impairments are discriminated against. Both inside and outside the courtroom. If a witness testifies, there are no sub-titles or sign language to assist the listener. Rather these accommodations must be requested ahead of time. And the very fact that someone needs to request these accommodations in the first place shows the inherent biases baked into the practice of law.

Additionally, people suffering with invisible disabilities, like chronic pain, depression, anxiety, attention deficit disorder, etc, are discriminated against. Employers may have hard time believing that a lawyer may have a true disability, as the lawyer may look perfectly healthy on the outside. Making accommodations less likely, and punishments more likely.

As it stands now, the way we have structured the practice of law, privileges and promotes the healthy lawyer. Privileges and promotes the able-bodied lawyer. And Privileges and promotes the disablity-free lawyer.

Why is that okay?

We need to examine the way we have set up the practice of law. Otherwise we will lose talented lawyers unnecessarily.


(Views are my own and do not reflect the views of any organization.)

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