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 UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder