Last Tuesday, the American Bar Association’s Commission on Disability Rights hosted its 3rd National Conference of the Employment of Lawyers, which ACC and MCCA cosponsored. The event included seven sessions and a lunch program that offered an update on ADAAA regulations and the status of disability inclusion in the legal profession; best practices for law schools, corporations and law firms; and personal success strategies for lawyers with disabilities. Information was digestible and applicable, but the program’s real highlight was its incredible range of perspectives. Speakers were corporate and private practice lawyers, judges, policymakers and government representatives, with and without disabilities.
During the luncheon, keynote speaker Seth D. Harris, Deputy Secretary of the US Department of Labor, attributed the recession, healthcare, education and discrimination as the four primary barriers to employment of persons with disabilities. He said 80 percent of working-age people with disabilities are not employed, nor looking for employment.
“If a person with disabilities stays on SSDI or SSI, they are guaranteed government care. In the labor market, the odds they will receive healthcare at all are getting worse.” Harris talked about DOL initiatives and proposed regulations that are working to reverse these challenges. He also gave the audience a list of available government resources, including the Employer Assistance and Resource Network, which offers onsite, customized DOL training for employers. “We have made it easy — I’d say quite easy — for employers to learn how to accommodate employees with disabilities,” said Harris. “We can’t conduct business as usual and expect the number of persons with disabilities in their organizations to increase.”
Other sessions drove home the business case for making disability inclusion a priority. During the closing session, “Disability Inclusion: Corporate and Law Firm Best Practices,” Jane Kow, owner of HR Law Consultants, focused on the numbers. Of all Equal Employment Opportunity categories, disability discrimination and/or harassment is the most frequently filed claim, constituting more than 25 percent of all complaints filed with the agency. In 2011, $103.4 million was awarded in disability discrimination-related settlements — this does not include litigation figures. Additionally, Kow said more than half of the accommodations requested by applicants and employees have no cost. For those that do, the average cost of an accommodation is $500-$600.
Formal resources and best practices tips were offered, but “softer” advice from the perspective of disabled employees was also at the crux of the conference sessions. To disabled audience members, Lauren E. DeBruicker, partner at Duane Morris LLP, said: “Own it.” A successful trial lawyer who is in a wheelchair full-time, DeBruicker said employees with disabilities should acknowledge their disability, know what they need, ask for it, and not give up until they get it. “The people I’ve seen struggle the most let their employer do the deciding, instead of saying, ‘Here’s what I do at home. Here’s what I think can work.’” DeBruicker acknowledged that when it feels hard to ask for help, she thinks about who might fill her shoes. “Would you want it for the next person? Thinking that way makes it a lot easier to advocate for yourself.”
Panelists for “Disability Inclusion: Corporate and Law Firm Best Practices” session (left to right): Jane Kow, owner of HR Law Consultants; Wm. T. (Bill) Robinson III, ABA president; and Michele S. Gatto, ACC vice chair
DeBruicker and her co-presenter Randal S. Farber, partner at Jackson Walker LLP, also said that being patronized gets tiresome. “The hero thing gets really overplayed,” said DeBruicker. Farber echoed: “I’m a good attorney, not just good at practicing with a disability.” Further, many of the disabled presenters in attendance insisted that they be held to the same standards as everyone else. The importance of mentoring was also a conference theme. Jared D. Hager, associate at Perkins Coie LLP and speaker for the session “Mentoring As a Building Block for Disability Inclusion in the Workplace,” said: “Mentoring is necessary for any young person to have success in the field. We shouldn’t single out minorities as the only people who need mentoring — we all need it — but it takes special importance for people with disabilities.” Hager explained that successful mentoring relationships often happen informally, but can be limited in that people seek out mentors and mentees that look like them. Programs like the one he has implemented at Perkins Coie help address this obstacle.
In the closing session, Michele Gatto, ACC vice chair, told the audience that most successful people have had at least one person take a chance on them. Inspiring reflection to take home, Gatto asked the audience: “How many of you have taken a chance on somebody? How many have had someone take a chance on you?”