Selling Myself Short

What is the difference between a disabled lawyer and a lawyer with a disability? James ponders the d

When this blog appeared for the first time on the New Statesman website, I experienced a feeling of self-consciousness, especially about the biography on the right hand side of the page, which is both longer than those of other contributors and written in the first person.

Partly this is because, like many with autism, I am quite a private person and I knew that my friends, and indeed strangers, would be able to read it. However, there is much more to it than that.

My writing is something of which I am proud and I will doubtless want to alert any potential future employers to my achievements in this area of my life. Even if I choose not to mention it, they could find my blog via Google without too much difficulty. Therefore, I must ask myself whether I really want them to know just how disabled I am.

It is usually a dilemma as to whether I want to disclose my disability on job applications. In practice, I am not always given the choice.

I am currently studying law and around half of the firms offering training contracts brazenly, and illegally, ask for this information up front. As well as making me concerned that I will be discriminated against, this gives me little faith that they are at the cutting edge in the field of employment law.

In other cases, such as working for a Disability Law Centre, it is possible that being disabled is actually an advantage, but herein lies a subtle problem. To obtain work in the area of disability, or as a writer on the subject, it can be necessary to prove that you are disabled enough for the role. As someone with a hidden impairment like autism, I feel inclined to play down my strengths and play up supposed weaknesses to show legitimacy, which partly explains why I wrote the biography in the way that I did. This tension pressures me into making a choice between being a disabled lawyer or simply a lawyer who happens to be disabled.

A similar contradiction is faced by all disabled people in employment, sadly still a minority, as a result of the disability discrimination legislation itself. In order to qualify to have reasonable adjustments made on their behalf, disabled employees must be able to demonstrate the extent of their impairment, while simultaneously convincing their bosses of their talent.

If they eventually find the need to bring a claim, they will have to persuade a tribunal that they both count as disabled under the Disability Discrimination Act and that they are sufficiently good at their jobs to render any differential treatment unjustified.

Some people regard the problem as simply one of language, which can be resolved just by altering the words that we use. In the Queen’s Speech, the government announced a not-quite-radical plan to reform Incapacity Benefit, by changing its name – for a second time.

Although the proposed shift of emphasis from incapacity to capacity would in some ways be welcome, it will be counter-productive if accompanied, as seems likely, with lots of extra hoops that people have to jump through in order to demonstrate their entitlement.

What is really needed is a fundamental change of attitude, a separation between proving one’s disability and proving one’s ability. This can only come about when it is accepted that fair treatment is an automatic right for everyone, not a privilege to be earned, and employers can see beyond irrelevant factors in deciding who is best qualified for the job.

As a child, I was very successful in my schoolwork but found it difficult to make friends. I went to Cambridge University but dropped out after a year due to severe depression and spent most of the next year in a therapeutic community, before returning to Cambridge to complete my degree. I first identified myself as autistic in 1999 while I was studying psychology in London but I was not officially diagnosed until 2004 because of a year travelling in Australia and a great deal of NHS bureaucracy. I spent four years working for the BBC as a question writer for the Weakest Link but I am now studying law with the intention of training to be a solicitor. My hobbies include online poker and korfball, and I will be running the London Marathon in 2007. I now have many friends and I am rarely depressed but I remain single.
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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear