Michael Smith - Real Estate Associate at Ashurst LLP
The Vision Foundation, a support organisation for blind and partially sighted people across London, recently conducted research into the lived experiences and employment chances of working age visually impaired people in the UK. The findings were sobering; in London, of the estimated 201,000 people living with sight loss, 52,400 are of working age, yet a staggering 75% of these (39,300) are not in employment.
I lost my sight during the first year of university, when I was studying for a degree in medicine. As a result, I had to change the course of my career, and instead decided to study for a geography degree. Upon graduating in 2013, I joined Ashurst LLP to do a training contract in law, where I later qualified as a lawyer for the Real Estate Department. Losing your sight and then deciding to qualify into a career where the written word is critical and an ability to read is a major requirement, might seem like a perverse choice for someone who has lost over 80% of their vision. But I have never let a challenge put me off.
There has been a significant decrease in the proportion of registered blind and partially sighted people of working age in any form of employment in the UK over the last decade, from one in three in 2005 to around one in four in 2015, according to the RNIB’s 2017 Employment Status and Sight Loss Report.
Having communicated my needs openly and honestly, Ashurst supported the implementation of the 'reasonable adjustments' I would require whilst in my role at the firm. Ashurst’s Early Careers Team was proactive in supporting my development, and with modern technology I had the tools I needed to be successful. It also helped that my first supervisor, a partner at the firm, was a vocal supporter for improving disability inclusion, and provided ‘top tips’ for working with me to successive supervisors. But while I thrived, I was aware that 19% of the working population also had a disability of some type. Yet it seemed to me that only those with visible disabilities were 'out' in the workplace, while a significant number of people were not open, perhaps fearing stigma and judgement.
As I established myself at Ashurst, I became increasingly keen to create a support network for those who, like me, were living and working with disabilities. So, in 2017, I set up Ashurst’s disability and resilience employee support network, disABILITY, to complement the existing networks for gender, LGBTI+, caring responsibilities and multiculturalism. disABILITY exists to educate, raise awareness and support all colleagues with disabilities, physical or mental, invisible or otherwise. It plans a programme of events each year, including talks from individuals with different perspectives and approaches to managing their disabilities in the workplace.
The solution to improving statistics around disability is surprisingly simple in nature.
In addition, in 2019, Ashurst signed up to The Valuable 500, an initiative launched at the World Economic Forum in Davos to promote disability inclusion in business. As a direct result of this campaign, we have developed a Workplace Adjustments Passport, which builds on the idea of needing to capture and record any adjustments employees require in order to ensure they are appropriately supported. The Passport moves with an individual as they undertake different roles within the firm, as well as when they move between offices. It provides a structured way for the employee, their supervisor and HR to discuss any adjustments an individual might need in the workplace. The very act of creating the document also helps to 'normalise' conversations around disability and to destigmatise it. And with colleagues feeling supported and valued, we ensure our talented people can reach their full potential.
The solution to improving statistics around disability is surprisingly simple in nature and requires communication, confidence and the ability for employers to see that people with disabilities can be great additions to their organisations. For me personally, it is very satisfying, despite having been at Ashurst for a comparatively short time, to feel that I have been able to make a mark and smooth the path a little for those with disabilities who may follow.