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  1. Politics
24 September 2007

Looking for work is hard work

Being disabled means rarely finding the right job, irrespective of one's potential

By James Medhurst

Disabled people elicit sympathy in many different ways, not all of which make sense. The fact that someone cannot walk may strike others as intolerable but, for a person who is born without legs, it is simply an unremarkable fact of everyday life. Similarly, problems that I have with social interaction can sometimes be frustrating but, if I am honest, I know that most people feel as insecure about making close friends as I do, even if they are more successful at forming superficial bonds.

On the other hand, there is an extraordinary lack of awareness of the pain and anger that can be caused to disabled people by the attitudes and ignorance that we experience from those in power, and nowhere is this starker than in the often brutal consequences of our attempts to find work which reflects our abilities.

The first thing to say is that I have a job which more or less pays the bills. This makes me luckier than most. However, without blowing my own trumpet too much, I believe that as a Cambridge graduate with a flair for legal research, I should not have any real difficulty in pursuing a career in law. Unfortunately, my potential employers do not seem to agree.

For them, charming their clients into believing that they are getting a good service is seen as being a more important skill than actually providing such a service. This assessment is probably overgenerous because most of them do not even take the opportunity to find out how charming I am – they simply read the euphemistically-titled ‘Health’ section of the application form and draw their conclusions based on stereotypes rather than experience.

The mechanism of recruiting lawyers creates its own particular frustrations. For example, it is almost invariably by means of a lengthy application form, each of which can take a whole weekend to complete. I would have no objection to this if I did not suspect that my forms are often rejected without being read on the basis of my disclosed medical history.

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If there are a few firms which are more forward-thinking than the others, then there is no way of identifying them. It is possible that the entire profession is closed to me, and that I have committed myself to four years of study for nothing, and yet I would have no way of finding out. A further annoyance is the fact that firms are extremely reluctant to give feedback about my applications which denies me a key method of making improvements.

The reason they do not give feedback is obvious. They do not want to supply ammunition for a lawsuit by revealing their true motives. In some cases, there may even be a genuine reason for overlooking me but they are still afraid of being sued. Another difficulty of my situation is that I have experienced blatant discrimination so many times that I am not always sure whether to believe someone even when my instincts tell me they are trustworthy.

My judgement is skewed and I cannot help wonder whether this kind of behaviour eventually results in more litigation rather than less. Some potential employers have been so keen to get rid of me that they have tried to hint subtly or not-so-subtly what they are up to, with the intention that I should not dream of applying to them again. This is asking for trouble. Fighting against these attitudes is exhausting work but it is just as hard for those holding them. It is time to stop resisting the incoming tide of equality.

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