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By Andrea De Souza

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JobAccess can help with workplace modifications that encourage greater inclusion of people with disabilities in the legal profession.

Bridie Hudson is in her penultimate year of her Juris Doctor at Monash University. A senior policy officer at the Department of Health and Human Services in the Office for Women, she has previously worked at the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission. She has cerebral palsy.
 

What has been your experience of working in the legal profession with a disability?

Overall, it has been positive. Across the many organisations that I have worked for, my colleagues and managers have had an inclusive attitude and valued my skills, and I have been included as part of the team. Occasionally, there is a person who does not have disability awareness but that has been the exception.

I have an obvious disability, so not disclosing my disability is not an option for me. While that makes me vulnerable to discrimination, it can also mean that people are more willing to accommodate me as a person with a physical disability. I think that it can be harder to disclose a non-visible disability in the workplace because, unfortunately, this can be associated with more stigma.
 

Do you disclose your disability in your CV?

I do not discuss my disability in my CV or job application. Job applications are about demonstrating people’s relevant skills and abilities and my disability is not relevant to this. It is only relevant to disclose my disability at the point at which I require reasonable adjustments. For example, at the interview stage I may ask for a reasonable adjustment such as a few minutes of additional time.
 

Is that your advice for law students or junior solicitors?

Everyone will have their own individual view, needs and experience. I would advise to disclose a disability only when you need reasonable adjustments. Focus on the skills and experience that you bring to the position.

People have asked me if employers are surprised when they realise that I have a disability. If they are, that is based on their own misconception that people they meet will not have a disability. This is a logical flaw, because many people in society and in the workforce have a disability. I think it is about the legal profession re-conceptualising the composition of their workforce.
 

What sorts of adjustments have you needed?

Most of my jobs have involved office work. After such a long time studying, I’m very used to sitting down at a computer. I have a mobility scooter, so I need somewhere to park it and charge it at work. I also have my own keyboard.

Depending on the core duties in each position, I sometimes have to think about appropriate adjustments tailored to each role. For example, if a job involves travelling, I have to work out the best way for me to get there. In one job, there was an organisational policy that two staff went on each fieldtrip, so my colleagues simply did the driving.
 

How have you found applying for clerkships?

Generally, I found the experience the same as other law students – you need to dedicate time to researching each firm and tailoring your application accordingly.

Some firms incorporated timed tests as part of the application process. Such tests are not accessible to everyone without reasonable adjustment. Ideally, the application process should be as accessible as possible, so you have the broadest range of applicants.
 

Do you have any other advice for law students?

Volunteer. Volunteering led to my first paid job. When I graduated from my undergraduate degree, I approached the organisations I had formed relationships with through my volunteering and asked for a job. They knew me and knew I was a good worker. Youthlaw offered me my first job. Once I got my first job, it led to my second job. Like everybody, I do not always get all of the jobs that I apply for.
 

What advice do you have for businesses that are worried accommodating employees with a disability is too difficult or too expensive?

JobAccess is a commonwealth program that funds workplace building modifications, adjustments and equipment as needed by each individual employee with a disability (through the Employment Assistance Fund). It will also organise free workplace assessments and has a telephone advisory line.

Although it requires a minimum level of employment (eight hours per week for at least 13 weeks) and doesn’t cover volunteers, it is a value program and means that employees can receive funding for a range of workplace adjustments. It is available to employees with a range of disabilities across Australian workplaces. This challenges the misconception that accommodating employees with a disability is too difficult or too expensive. Many employers are not aware of JobAccess and more should be done to promote it.
 

Do you have any other advice for businesses employing people with disabilities?

Over the years, I have tended to get offered work related to disability policy. My early work in disability policy gave me valuable insight and experience in policy roles, built up my professional confidence and provided me the opportunity to work on important social justice issues. However, I am interested in a range of social justice issues. I am conscious in my career not to be pigeonholed into disability-related work. I want to do new things and be challenged. It can also be emotionally taxing to spend all day thinking about issues that affect you in a personal way.

For law firms and employers in the legal profession, I would encourage them to allocate work tasks aligned with each employees’ interests, within the framework of their core business and business demand. It would be a misconception to assume that all employees with a disability want to work on disability-related work.

I have also found that my colleagues in disability-related jobs can be more aware and inclusive of me as an employee with a disability. This highlights the need for disability awareness to be promoted across all areas of the legal profession and other industries. While it is positive that the disability sector values the skills and experiences of employees with a disability, I would like to see a workforce where people with a disability are able to pursue a range of interests, passions and vocational pathways. I dream of a legal profession where people with a disability are able to be lawyers, barristers, judges, politicians and policy makers across all domains.

 


ANDREA DE SOUZA is a junior barrister on Greens List, working primarily in personal injury, with particular expertise in medical negligence She is a past co-chair of the LIV Young Lawyers Editorial Committee.


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