To Disclose or Not to Disclose: The Stigmatization of Attorneys with “Invisible” Disabilities

by Rachel Codair

Dec. 10th, 2019 at 9:00 p.m. CDT

The language of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) is clear. It’s purpose is “to establish a clear and comprehensive prohibition of discrimination on the basis of disability” and as outlined in Title I, this applies to employment. So why do many legal professionals with visually indiscernible disabilities choose to conceal their condition in the workplace? Why does a fear of prejudice still keep these people from seeking the accommodations they may need?

[The ADA does not provide an exhaustive list of disabilities it covers; click here for some common examples as well as an elaborated definition of “disability.”]

Attorneys, judges, and their peers in the legal world are held to the highest standard of intellect, character, and overall competence. An important criterion for which lawyers are evaluated is dependability — how worthy the attorney is of a client’s trust and thus, how worthy he or she is of the partners’ trust as a representative of the firm. The unfortunate stigma that follows persons with disabilities unfairly calls this into question. Although the disability, either by nature or due to suitable medical treatment, may have no bearing on their proficiency with the law or adequacy of defense, many legal professionals in this category must contend with preconceptions that are undeniably problematic for their success.

According to Disability Compendium’s 2017 Annual Report, 12.8% of Americans in and outside of the legal profession live with a diagnosed disability. Further, Invisible Disabilities Association reports 74% of those Americans live with a disability that is “invisible”, meaning it is not readily apparent to others. Attorneys and other working Americans whose disability falls into this category are thus presented with a choice: to disclose their condition and subject themselves to prejudice or to conceal or “cover” their disability in avoidance of exactly that.

The concept of “covering”, which came up during In Conversation with Attorneys with Disabilities, a 2018 panel facilitated by Law Practice Today, has been referred to as the propensity of individuals to downplay or disassociate from their identity (in this case, their disability) to avoid whatever stigma may accompany that identity. Unfortunately, this is evidently not uncommon in the workplace, including law firms around the country.

For some attorneys, it takes little effort to conceal their disability in their practice. The panel cited above introduces personal testimony from lawyers who have a diagnosed disability covered under the ADA. Panelist Waukeshia Jackson, best selling-author, partner and patent attorney who happens to suffer from retinitis pigmentosa (and is legally blind because of it) admits, “not all of my clients know that I have a disability. It has not impacted my business or ability to practice law”. Conversely, an article from the ABA Journal written by Terry Carter recounts the experience of a young associate who struggled to meet deadlines and chose not to inform her supervisor of her attention deficit disorder (ADD), a condition that — unlike Attorney Jackson’s — directly inhibits her ability to succeed in her legal career.

Fortunately, after her supervisors were enlightened to the presence of this medical condition, they were advised to break her assignments into pieces, which helped mitigate the effects of her ADD. However, not all attorneys are as fortunate in this way.

In the same article, Carter interviews Stuart Prixley, a senior patent attorney who suffers from cerebral palsy and notes that individuals with disabilities are “still often looked at as a delicate flower or damaged” which “makes it hard to be part of the diverse fabric of the workforce.” Carter cites the psychological implications of this prejudice; he writes, “though he succeeded in law practice, Pixley felt isolated and discouraged in the firms.”

[Here’s more on Prixley’s experience navigating the legal field with a disability.]

Achieving success in a legal career while managing a disability is difficult enough without having to face unfair treatment and bias among supervisors and peers, so it is understandable that some may be tempted to withhold this information to avoid being discredited. However, the advantages of divulging this information to associates — and to clients — outweigh the potential drawbacks.

First and foremost, disclosing one’s disability is a necessary first step in seeking accommodations. The choice to forego potential accommodations as a sacrifice in hopes of otherwise-at-risk equal treatment is essentially unwise. If having equal opportunity for success is of value, accommodations are the way to level the playing field, if you will. Further, accommodations that enable the achievement of an associate with a disability ultimately contribute to the aggregate performance of the firm, which benefits all parties involved.

The following testimony cites examples of accommodations mentioned during the panel referenced previously:

  • Panelist John F. Stanton recalls, “it was almost always little stuff. Assistance with phone calls now and then. Face-to-face office meetings rather than phone calls to discuss cases or projects.” Stanton is an attorney for the United States Department of Justice who happens to be deaf.
  • Panelist Kevin M. Hara is a San Francisco-based attorney for Reed Smith who suffers from a high-level spinal cord injury that impairs his mobility and necessitates the use of a wheelchair. Hara says Reed Smith has assisted him, his wife and caregivers with travel accommodations and has allowed him to work a flexible schedule that includes telecommuting.
  • Kevin Fritz, an attorney for Seyfarth Shaw, LLP, in Chicago, says, “I use Dragon NaturallySpeaking to dictate court documents, research memos, e-mails, etc. I have a Bob Barker microphone sitting on my desk at all times so that I can either dictate or make a phone call from the same equipment. My lung capacity is extremely diminished, but with the right technology and microphones, I am at the same level as my peers.” Fritz suffers from a form of muscular dystrophy that inhibits use of his legs and limits the use of his arms and hands; he notes, “it is obviously impossible for me to type notes if I am also talking so having a paralegal or a junior associate in tow is a necessity.”

As far as the client-facing side of an attorney’s day-to-day is concerned, a few panelists describe the upper hand that they feel their situation gives them in their practice, especially when that practice relates to the ADA.

  • Fritz touches on this interesting nuance: “practicing in public accommodation law, I think my clients take me more seriously because of my disabilities.” He elaborates, “having that unique connection to this important law helps me navigate its complex nature with my clients and I think that those that know about my situation find it beneficial for their situation.”
  • Michael Liner is the founder and managing shareholder of Liner Legal, LLC, a disability law firm in Ohio. Having been diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and motor tic syndrome, Liner explains, “I think my clients take me more seriously because of my disabilities.” He continues, “I can absolutely offer my clients empathy and make them feel understood in a way that another lawyer might not be able”.

Some panelists have even come to found and/or lead initiatives in their workplace aimed at empowering those affected by disability. In a world where they had not disclosed their disability, they would not have been able to support and advocate for others in this way.

  • Hara co-founded LEADRS (Looking For Excellence And Advancement of individuals with Disability at Reed Smith), a diversity affinity group that has become part of Reed Smith’s global Diversity & Inclusion Initiative.
  • Fritz is Vice Chair of Seyfarth Shaw’s new affinity group called All Abilities, whose goal is to empower the community and internal employees, as well as clients, to embrace diversity and inclusion.

The following are a few appropriate ways to do your part in supporting fellow associates who happen to have a disability without putting your foot in your mouth.

  • If a colleague enlightens you to their disability, ask them if there is anything you can do to support them. Offering assistance in this way refrains from assuming that they need help, or even presupposing what that might entail. In the case that your colleague refuses help, offering in this way will still leave them with an encouraging sense of support.
  • Take notes from Microsoft, who Prixley applauds for fostering an understanding of disabilities through cultural competence rather than through gestures of political correctness. [To learn more on what it means to be culturally competent, click here.]
  • Be an ally. If you are witness to discrimination (in any form, but in this case, on the basis of disability) speak up. Stand up for your fellow associate and report this type of behavior to the appropriate entity. Taking this action helps protect present and future associates with disabilities in ensuring this type of prejudice does not persist in the workplace.

Rachel Codair is an undergraduate student at the University of Alabama.