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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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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