New Virtual Portal Aims to Help Lawyers With Disabilities Feel Less Isolated

More than 2,000 lawyers in Ontario self-identify as having a disability, data shows Julia Knope, CBC News
Posted: Sep 26, 2023

Peer Support Network for Lawyers Living with Disabilities website.
The Ontario Bar Association has launched a first-of-its-kind initiative called Peer Support Network for Lawyers Living with Disabilities, where lawyers can connect and share their lived experiences in a safe and confidential space. (Submitted by Ontario Bar Association)

As a lawyer living with a disability, a single mother, and a caretaker to someone with a disability, Kelly McDermott says achieving work-life balance can be challenging.

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, it became near-impossible.

“Like many of my colleagues, my workload tripled overnight. I had some significant life crisis and that usual balance that you have as a lawyer was gone and it left me very burnt out and quite sick,” McDermott, president of the Ontario Bar Association (OBA), told CBC Toronto.

She’s not the only lawyer juggling both a job and a disability. According to the latest Law Society of Ontario statistics, 2,128 – or 5.2 per cent of licensed Ontario lawyers – self-identified as having a disability.

To help support those lawyers, McDermott created a first-of-its-kind initiative called Peer Support Network for Lawyers Living with Disabilities. She’s officially launching the project on Tuesday along with the OBA, which is the largest voluntary legal association in Ontario representing more than 16,000 lawyers, judges, law professors and law students.

The virtual portal offers tools and peer support meetings where lawyers can candidly and confidentially share their lived experiences.

“When I got this platform it was very important for me to be brave and to talk about my own disability and I’m so glad I did,” McDermott said.

McDermott says lawyers endure workplace discrimination in a variety of forms.

“A lot of lawyers were experiencing some difficulty trying to find accommodations for disabilities that required a bit of extra time or required some additional accommodations,” she said.

The new portal will include what the OBA calls “insightful programming,” as well as relevant articles and resources to help lawyers navigate those issues.

The project will also include peer meetings where lawyers living with disabilities can gather to share their lived experiences. The meetings will be led by trained group-discussion leaders who are also lawyers.

‘No longer do we need to suffer in silence’

Tim Rose, a disability advocate and consultant, says a portal like the one OBA launched will also help disprove the notion that people with disabilities can’t hold leadership roles.

“There’s assumptions made about people with disabilities and what roles we can and can’t take on. And there’s assumptions made about our leadership capabilities,” he said.

“It is kind of an internalized ableism form of discrimination – where you’re constantly wondering how your disability is going to impact your future career.”

Rose describes McDermott’s initiative as a “powerful tool for learning, for healing, for feeling supported in your career.”

“Any time you have an opportunity to get a network of peer support, it’s a positive thing because there are nuances to any career path when you have a disability, or nuances to navigating those career paths, that people without disabilities won’t really understand.”

Lorin MacDonald, a Toronto human rights lawyer and accessibility advocate, agrees.

She says many lawyers with disabilities have experienced discrimination within the legal profession that inhibits their careers. Those challenges were underscored during the pandemic, she said, when all lawyers were expected to move their practice online despite technical limitations their disability might cause.

“For many years, lawyers with disabilities experienced discrimination, but had nowhere to go,” MacDonald said.

The OBA’s new portal, she said, offers a “safe space” for lawyers to come together, “creating a community where one can authentically be themselves.”

“No longer do we need to suffer in silence.”

Goal to help lawyers across Canada

The OBA already held one virtual meeting for lawyers with disabilities to connect to one another. McDermott said the response from lawyers was swift and surprising.

“I was so surprised at how being brave gave other people the opportunity to be brave too and to speak their truth,” she said.

The portal only serves Ontario lawyers for the time being, but McDermott hopes it will one day expand to the Canadian Bar Association so lawyers across the country have access to support.

Not only that, but she hopes to inspire young people with disabilities to enter the profession.

“The idea of having a more accommodating profession and, you know, letting these young lawyers learn a little bit of the wisdom from other lawyers who have gone through, you know, similar experiences,” she said,

“I’m hoping this will further expand this dialogue and make it a more accessible profession.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Julia Knope is a digital reporter for CBC News Toronto. Have a news tip? Contact her at julia.knope@cbc.ca.

Original at https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/ontario-bar-association-lawyers-disability-portal-1.6977583