Lawyers with disabilities face barriers in practice

  Lack of career opportunity because of prejudice, fear or lack of understanding remain a problem for lawyers with disabilities, who are often forced into solo practice. Many who have succeeded in their career paths credit accommodations at law school, self-advocacy and support from mentors and colleagues.

"Accommodating lawyers who have disabilities is considered to be too expensive, and there are very few financial incentives or tax breaks available. If a disability appears to interfere with the economic bottom line, the lawyer is likely to be let go."

— from the report Lawyers with disabilities: identifying barriers to equality  

B.C. lawyers with disabilities face discrimination, prejudice and access barriers that make it difficult to practise law according to Lawyers with disabilities: identifying barriers to equality, a study recently released by the Disability Research Working Group of the Law Society's Equity and Diversity Committee.

Twenty-four lawyers and law students with a range of disabilities participated in the study, half as part of a focus group and the balance through a survey or personal interview.

In their experience, discriminatory practices prevent the career advancement of lawyers with disabilities or produce such stress that a frequent result is overwork, burn-out and failure, both in private firms and government departments. Lawyers with disabilities are seldom kept on after articling, and their search for employment is difficult. The study revealed there is a tendency for lawyers to hide their disabilities since disclosure often leads to discrimination in employment. More than half of the participants spoke of loss of employment, marginalization into solo practice or early retirement.

"Accommodating lawyers who have disabilities is considered to be too expensive, and there are very few financial incentives or tax breaks available," the report says. "If a disability appears to interfere with the economic bottom line, the lawyer is likely to be let go." In the experience of lawyers in the study, one of the more common accommodations for lawyers with disabilities is to permit part-time work, but this is still not yet fully accepted in the legal profession.

Some participants in the study expressed concern about judges and others showing impatience, intolerance and lack of awareness about disability issues.

In presenting the key findings of the study to the Benchers in November, Working Group Chair Halldor Bjarnason pointed out that the study was important and unique among the Canadian law societies, and not an easy task. "One of the most prevalent problems is that, unlike other marginalized groups in the profession — such as women, gays and lesbians, aboriginal people or ethnic minorities — there is little or no sense of community or solidarity among lawyers with disabilities," he said. "There was a pervasive feeling of isolation among this group."

He urged the Benchers to support further study by the Working Group on how to overcome barriers. He expressed confidence that B.C. lawyers would make changes for the profession to become more open and noted that other law societies were watching progress in B.C. on the issue.

Participants in the study suggested a fundamental step is for the profession to acknowledge existing discrimination and seek solutions that will lead to equality for lawyers with disabilities as guaranteed in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The solutions may involve policy changes, funding initiatives and political will.

Despite barriers in practice, participants in the study found encouragement along their career paths — mentors, supportive colleagues and court personnel and allies such as disability advocates and other equity and diversity groups in the legal profession who are addressing barriers. For many, their own self-initiative, hard work and advocacy made a positive difference in a challenging profession, and a few told stories about transforming experiences of discrimination into new professional opportunities.

"We have to look at the history of the development of section 15 in the Charter of Rights and say, ‘Yes, this is a tough process. This is going to call us to think beyond the way that we've thought.'"

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"A lot of firms are afraid of the requirements to accommodate, afraid of the expense, so right away they are hands off about the issue."

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"Some courthouses are still not user friendly for persons with physical disabilities."

— Focus group and survey participants  

Law school, at least within the last 10 years, proved a more positive experience than practice, with both UBC and UVic law schools praised by students and former students for sensitive and respectful accommodations (such as part-time attendance and additional time to write examinations) and fostering what one student termed "a rights-expanding atmosphere." Resentment expressed by fellow students about accommodations is the current challenge in law school, along with delays in providing printed materials in alternative formats and difficulties accessing some areas of campus.

Participants in the study offered ideas for educating the profession through the internet, positive image advertising, workshops and publications, structural changes to improve physical access and provide individual accommodations for lawyers with disabilities, where needed, in courthouses and legal organizations, peer support and mentoring and confronting prejudice.

The disability research study summarizes some of the key court decisions on the duty of accommodation in employment and also flags problems of access to legal services and the justice system for members of the public with disabilities.

Joining Mr. Bjarnason on the 1999/2000 Disability Research Working Group were lawyers Henry Vlug and Ken Kramer and staff lawyer Kuan Foo, Equity and Diversity Program Coordinator.

If you would like to read Lawyers with Disabilities: identifying barriers to equality, the report is available in PDF format in the Publications & Forms section of the Law Society website at A hard copy is available on request by contacting Kuan Foo at the Law Society office, by telephone at (604) 443-5727 (toll-free in B.C. 1-800-903-5300), by fax at 443-5770 or email to