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A new path forward for disability inclusion

As the rare blind guy with his dog within varied rooms of influence or power, I often think on how we need to advance the disability conversation as a group of untapped people who hold value in their own right.

I recently attended a two-panel legal forum in honor of Black History Month that focused on the history and careers of African American lawyers. One African American lawyer discussed how he is often the rare black lawyer and male leader in the room.

This reminded me that all minority status legal professionals must vigorously collaborate to enact a mixture of “hard law” laws and policies but implement inclusion through certain “soft law” measures.

Coleagues who value me as an attorney but know I have limitations as a blind person respectfully share their name as a reminder, demonstrating a “soft measure.”

Disability is a wonderful category of individuals, often untapped, that brings value to a corporation and to all professions. One in four Americans has a disability that requires legal services by professionals with disabilities.

Inclusive of the United States, it is estimated that one billion people with disabilities live in the world. Those are the ones who we know possess this status or perhaps identify as such. Indeed, besides the documentable value in experience and innovation these individuals provide, disability is an intersectional minority – one of the largest in the world.

Many people with disabilities value various forms of audio description, including an article of clothing. I have observed in the past couple of years, meetings or conferences where leaders will describe their personhood, e.g., personal pronouns. Describing someone’s pronouns or color of shirt feels like a nod to acceptance.

I recognize, however, for some conservatives this seems like woke culture. Rather, it is a certain “soft measure” that advances Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility and the ideal society.

A combination of a “hard law” measure and a “soft law” measure was also discussed at the legal forum, which I support as a leader within the state bar association. Namely, some African American leaders within the bar community want posthumously to license an evidently qualified but denied African American individual from the 19th Century.

People engage in “soft measures” correctly, and many incorrectly interact with the disabled. The difference includes those who share this reminder of their name in a way that never feels patronizing or derogating of my position as an attorney.

Whether this is on purpose or not, nothing can affect your work performance more than when your colleagues appear to be treating you noticeably different from those who are accepted as the “normal” party in the room or provided the opportunity to shine. This sense of exclusion may not be sufficiently documentable into a colorable legal claim; more often than not it is the kind of feeling only a minority who has experienced bias and discrimination can sense and describe.

Individuals, who dispute the need for these disability inclusion “soft measures” or best practices as woke culture operationalized amuck have not arguably lived the experience of what seems like insurmountable bias.

During a Q&A opportunity at the forum on the history and careers of African American legal professionals, a white, able-bodied attorney tried to argue to a room of African American lawyers, law students, and judges that the legal profession, including, law firm employers, have improved in affirmative hiring practices.

I believe he said that sometimes so-called imposter syndrome nullifies advancement by minority legal professionals. A work setting may be incredibly claustrophobic or uncomfortable when a person with a disability can sense that co-workers or leadership intentionally or unintentionally segregates or relegates them.

In my own career, I have encountered at least two documentable instances where I was not hired based on disability. Indeed, one of those occurred within the federal government. In some circumstances, these individuals may even dispute the need for affirmative disability-centric laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, as amended.

The remarks by the attendee at the legal forum show that, despite all of our efforts to advance Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility, substantial work remains within the legal profession to expand the profession to look like America.

When I first observed this practice of describing personal attributes at a conference, I sensed more inclusion but also authentic acceptance. This recognition will bring understanding. Through understanding can finally come true collaboration that promotes people with disabilities as individuals and as valuable professionals. As such, this practice of clothing description must be recognized as a nudge for society to become more inclusive.

Gary C. Norman, Esq., LL.M., is a past chair of the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights. He can be reached at (410) 241-6745.





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