Accommodations for Clients with Disabilities

Vol. 31 No. 2

By

Joshua Daley Paulin operates a solo practice in Boston, Massachusetts, focusing on immigration law. He blogs at bostonimmigrationblog.com.

Woman with dogIn the course of your practice, you may run across one of the following situations:

  • A potential client contacts you via e-mail and, after some back-and-forth, sets up a consultation with you to discuss her impending divorce. She then informs you that she is deaf and is seeking accommodation. How would you handle this?
  • A potential client calls you with an estate planning issue and shows up for the first meeting in a wheelchair. You’re on the second floor of a building without an elevator—or maybe you’re on street level but there are two steps up to your office from the sidewalk, and there’s no ramp. How do you accommodate him?
  • A walk-in comes into your office waiting area accompanied by a guide dog, and you are incredibly nervous around dogs. What do you do?

Accommodating Clients

If you plan to be open to the public for any length of time, there’s a strong likelihood that you’ll have clients with disabilities. These can range from the obvious to the not-so-apparent—from people with mobility impairments that require canes or wheelchairs, to people with visual and hearing difficulties, to those with psychiatric or neurological disabilities. What they all have in common is that they, like all your other clients, are in need of your expertise. It is vital that we as attorneys put the focus where it belongs and avoid any obstacles that would interfere with our giving them the help they need.

A note on accommodations—some can be made with minimal effort when the need arises. A blind person with a guide dog? Step out of the way and let the dog do her job. A person with a mental impairment? Be attentive to the fact that you may need to be more detailed in your explanations and be more patient with the client. Other accommodations may require a bit of preplanning, such as arranging for an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter. Still others are those that will require considerable planning or are at least food for thought. For example, if your current office space isn’t wheelchair accessible, there usually isn’t a quick fix—but if you’re looking for new space in the future, that might be something to explore.

It’s really about mindset. People with disabilities are seeking access to justice, so imagine the frustration inherent in a situation where someone doesn’t have access to the lawyer who could get him the remedy or defense he’s entitled to under our system. Equal justice in that case becomes a hollow promise.

With mindset comes a commitment to making our services and our system accessible to all. It’s worth taking the time to think about how accessible your practice is to people with different disabilities: Is your office free of obstacles? Are your restrooms accessible to people with mobility impairments? More importantly, are you willing to do what it takes to ensure that your office is a portal to our courts and government agencies for everyone who needs your help?

Accommodating Employees

This article was originally intended to address only issues of accommodations for clients with disabilities, but I expanded the topic because it doesn’t end there. As attorneys, we should of course be accommodating—the Americans with Disabilities Act aside, we have a professional responsibility to extend access to justice that shouldn’t need the nudge of such a law. We should also consider what happens as our practice expands and we need to add or replace staff and associates. Can we be as welcoming to potential employees with disabilities as we are to potential clients?

In either case—potential client or potential employee—it’s important not to assume that you know what the person needs in the way of accommodations or that you know the extent of his capability. For example, a well-meaning offer of an accommodation or assistance to someone who does not need it may be a cause for resentment instead of goodwill. And the person whose disability makes you hesitant to hire her may have access to technology that enables her to meet the job requirements.

Law firms are making strides in the direction of diversity and inclusion in terms of the race and gender of the people who work there; there’s also room for improvement in terms of people with disabilities—and making our break rooms accessible to the disabled will send a powerful message of inclusion and welcome to those who come to us seeking our assistance.

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