YourABA June 2011 Masthead

To disclose or not disclose: Lawyers with disabilities speak out

Michael Schwartz, a deaf lawyer and associate professor at Syracuse University College of Law, recalls applying for employment with 135 New York firms after law school. With degrees from top U.S. universities and past employment at the Manhattan’s D.A. office and the Justice Department, he believed that his disability would not be a significant career obstacle. However, not a single firm called him for an interview.

Schwartz is among several legal professionals who contributed their insights on managing disability in Lawyers, Lead On, a new book published by the Commission on Mental and Physical Disability Law. One of the themes running through the collection of essays is the question of whether or not to disclose a disability to an employer.

With a relatively obvious impairment, a lawyer like Schwartz may not have a choice about disclosure. However, when disabilities are less apparent, many lawyers choose not to disclose, say book editors Carrie G. Basas, Rebecca S. Williford and Stephanie L. Enyart. They point to a profound under-representation of lawyers with disabilities in the legal profession, citing that of more than 9,000 summer associates in 2009 at National Association for Legal Career Professionals firms, only nine attorneys reported having disabilities.

Despite the Americans with Disabilities Act, contributors to Lawyers, Lead On say that shame, stigma and discrimination are still very much parts of the disability experience, particularly within the legal profession.

Despite the Americans with Disabilities Act, contributors to Lawyers, Lead On say that shame, stigma and discrimination are still very much parts of the disability experience, particularly within the legal profession.

Kathleen Hagen of the Minnesota Disability Law Center is blind, and has felt discrimination because of her condition first hand. She says that after law school, she was able to get many first interviews with employers, but with her apparent disability, it was five years after graduation when she finally got a second interview.

Howard A. Rosenblum, a deaf lawyer, reports similar discrimination. When he began as an attorney, he wanted to practice intellectual property law, but encountered doubt and skepticism about his abilities—although it was always subtle. He was steered in the direction of working in disability rights, where he remains today.

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“In a profession that may tend toward exposing weakness and celebrating the superhuman, many lawyers with disabilities feel isolated, alienated or even hesitant to come out about their disabilities,” say Basas, Williford and Enyart, also pointing out the risks of coming out: employers’ lowered expectations, professional stagnation, stereotyping from supervisors and coworkers, and positions of tokenism, among them.

“I’d love to say that if you disclose your disability at work, you will face no barriers to your career opportunities, growth and success. I can’t do any of that, and it breaks my heart,” says Jodi Hanna, a legal advocate for people with disabilities at Disability Rights Wisconsin.

“Lawyers are ‘attack train’ listeners,” Hanna explains. “We watch for weakness in our opponents so we can exploit them. Why would I want to do what amounts to announcing a vulnerability?”

Many lawyers like Kylar Broadus, whose disability is not immediately apparent without knowing him, refuse to disclose their condition. “There are tools that make things easier for me that an employer could provide, but I choose not to go that route,” he says, recalling many negative reactions—and even disbelief—from several employers after sharing his disability.

Misperceptions about people with disabilities are a common reason for non-disclosure. Sarah Deer, an assistant professor at William Mitchell College of Law, manages bipolar disorder and says that mental illness still has a stigma attached to it. While she is now open about her disability, she warns others to consider carefully to whom they disclose.

Lawyer Beth Sufian, who manages cystic fibrosis, agrees that the decision to disclose is a personal one. She suggests that lawyers get to know the people with whom they work before disclosing their otherwise “invisible” disabilities.

Ben Foss, director of access technology at Intel Corp., explains that disclosure can be freeing. “It is a lot easier to be open about the person you are rather than putting that effort into hiding.”

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Afraid that her career and reputation would suffer from disclosing her bipolar disorder, Deer hid her disability for many years and did not embrace the available treatments, to the detriment of her health. Today she refuses to resist accommodations and medical treatment, a decision strengthened by fulfilling work at the law school—a great fit for her skills and personality, she says.

Lawyer Will Grignon, who is blind, strongly advocates disclosure in the workplace. He is straightforward when sharing his disability with employers, receiving “pleasant, professional and practical” responses—without lowered expectations, discrimination or degradation. “I try to show them that having a disability is just one of those things you deal with and point out that they deal with many things in their own lives.”

Cristina Rubke of Shartsis Friese LLP also reports positive support in the workplace. She is physically disabled and says that people want to help her succeed. “My firm in particular has given me so much support and provided a uniquely nurturing environment in which to develop,” she says, sharing an example of a senior partner who built a wooden platform to support her office desk so she could reach the desk top.

Before disclosing, Grignon suggests lawyers take time to prepare. “Being prepared for how different people react to disability will give you the space, flexibility and power to negotiate your career with competence, ease and grace.”

Rubke advises others disclosing their condition to focus people’s attention on professional skills and talent, rather than the disability. “I have learned to be very open and clear about the nature of my disability and what I need to accommodate it. People are naturally curious and are much more able to focus on other things once their curiosity is satisfied.”

“For people like me who have non-apparent disabilities, it is particularly important to learn how to talk about your disability in a way that makes other people feel comfortable,” advises Andy Imparato, president of the American Association for People with Disabilities, who manages bipolar disorder. “If you are not comfortable talking about your disability, then you will make others feel uncomfortable.”

Imparato suggests that lawyers cultivate their “disability pride” to become more comfortable with their disability. “I would encourage you to think of your disability like you think about your gender, race or hometown—an important part of your life that helps differentiate you and helps you connect with others, but doesn’t necessarily define you or limit you.”

Mentors may be particularly useful in helping lawyers with their issues of disclosure and discrimination. “Having an open and honest dialogue with other disabled lawyers, as well as others who understand the context of work at a potential or current place of employment, can be valuable for people who are struggling with disclosing disabilities,” say Basas, Williford and Enyart.

“Throughout my legal career I have sought out mentors who appreciate my gifts and strengths and encourage me to reach for the stars and stretch and challenge myself,” says Imparato.

Hanna suggests that lawyers may even find mentors online. “There are amazing blogs and wonderful supportive and educational LISTSERVs.”

One of the practical reasons for disclosure is to receive reasonable accommodations.

Sufian advises those who disclose their condition to spend time explaining their disability to the employer. “Many people have preconceived ideas about certain disabilities, so it is best to make sure you discuss how your disability affects you on a daily basis.”

“I encourage you to proudly claim your disability whenever and wherever possible,” says Hanna, explaining that the best way to dispel stereotypes and end discrimination is for lawyers with disabilities to show the world that they are competent and skilled advocates. “Being an attorney gives you power, status and privilege. Use it to make the world a better place for people with disabilities.”

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