Thanks to Disability Alliance Blog for this article:
Finding My Way in an Ableist Profession by Salina Dewar
As an aspiring lawyer, my first hint of what lay ahead of me came at age 13. When I told classmates and teachers I wanted to be a lawyer to help people, almost all of them suggested I could be “a lawyer for people with disabilities.”
At the time, I shied away from that idea for two reasons. First, my understanding of human rights and injustice was broader than “just disability.” Second, I felt typecast. I wanted to be recognized for my ability, my talent and my contribution, not “just” for my disability.
My acceptance into law school was the beginning of my legal education. It was also the beginning of a crash course in ableism in the legal profession.
In one class, I mentioned to another student with a disability that I feared our peers would take me less seriously because I used crutches. That student responded to the effect of, “Yeah, I should probably be using [a mobility aid], but I don’t want to do the disability thing.”
The amount of time I needed to perform some tasks became a concern, too. I discovered that I needed more time to process and respond to information, particularly if I was under pressure. I learned later that this was an effect of my disability.
I was granted extra time to write some of my school exams and later to write the bar exams required to practice law.
I had some difficulty finding articles. This is the year you work under the guidance of a practicing lawyer, leading up to being permitted to practice law.
In 2004, I brought up my disability during interviews for articles because I wanted to address any concerns head-on. During one interview with a pair of male lawyers, the older lawyer brushed off the disability, saying he wasn’t worried about it.
His younger colleague chortled nervously and said something like, “Yeah, maybe it’ll help us win more because the judge will take pity on you.” His colleague elbowed him. I was both amused and horrified. I knew I would never work there.
Eventually, I practiced for over two years in an office that placed some weight on how much billable time you could generate. This created significant stress for me because almost everything I did seemed to take longer. I constantly felt the need to shave time off clients’ bills because I wasn’t sure how much time another lawyer would take.
Court appearances were nerve-wracking, too, because of the pressure not only to get it right but to appear perfect. I often brought a cheat-sheet I could refer to, to make sure I did not forget key points. I once had a judge say, “It will be better when you let go of the paper.” I think this was genuinely intended as encouragement, but fear and even shame kept me from explaining why I had notes.
In 2013, I switched to non-practice status to focus on my well-being and on finding my way to meaningful, law-related work in the non-profit sector (I’m a member of the Law Society, but I don’t currently practice law). In 2016, I joined DABC and moved over to our new Disability Law Clinic (DLC) in 2020.
In a recent conversation with an established practicing lawyer who has a disability, I learned that some BC courts have removed the option of virtual hearings for simple matters–an option widely used during the pandemic. This lawyer has been denied requests for virtual hearings or asked for a great deal of personal information to allow the accommodation, even when the other party has no concerns about it.
We often look to courts and tribunals when we have been wronged, but there is a great deal of ableism within the legal profession itself. I am determined to raise awareness about this ableism, so it can be addressed.
In the meantime, my experience navigating a rather rigid profession and the changes in the impact of my disability give me additional insight into the struggles, fears and frustrations of many of our clients at the DLC.
I no longer feel typecast. Instead, I thrive living as, and working with and for, people with disabilities many of whom are also members of other marginalized communities. It is both a pleasure and a privilege to do this work.
Salina Dewar, BA, LLB, is Law Clinic Assistant and Advocate with DABC’s Disability Law Clinic.