AIJA’s president, Paola Fudakowska, recently spoke with Yasmin Sheikh, founder of Diverse Matters, a consultancy firm which trains organisations and people to approach diversity and disability (both visible and non-visible) with confidence and strength. Yasmin is also Vice-Chair of the UK Law Society’s Lawyers with Disabilities Division, lawyer, public speaker, mentor, and coach.
She talked to us about her journey and how opening up the conversation around disability is critical to breaking down the boundaries in the legal profession. Read on to learn more.
Could you tell us a few words about yourself and your journey from being a lawyer to becoming an entrepreneur and diversity advocate?
Yasmin: I qualified as a lawyer back in 2003 and at that stage I didn’t have a disability but I am now a wheelchair user. In 2008 I sustained a spinal stroke at just aged 29, I went to bed one day and within hours I couldn’t get out of bed at all. At that point I was working at a big international law firm and had been there for three years, the irony was at that time I was working in the personal injury department. Following on from my injury I had a year off where I went through rehabilitation and learnt how to use my wheelchair as well as adapt to my new body.
It was a smooth transition physically at work, we had lifts and disabled facilities. But I did notice that there was a lower expectation of me, which consequently meant I had lower confidence in my own ability. I was perceived differently, I’m mixed race so I’ve been aware of my racial difference but it never acted as a barrier. Whilst working as a disabled individual in the legal profession I felt like I was a square pin trying to fit into a round hole and that my disability had to be specially accommodated, I felt very different. I had started talking about the issue at work and at workshops. I could see that there was a real interest so I started a disability network and I began telling legal partners about how we could make disabled people more visible and how we could approach conversations around the subject. This started my journey as an entrepreneur and I set up Diverse Matters four years ago.
How is disability viewed and talked about in law firms today? What’s your experience?
Yasmin: Many law firms’ response to how they treat disabled people or people with health conditions in the past has sometimes been we don’t have any disabled people working here or disabled people don’t apply. But law firms are beginning to stop the narrow-minded thinking and that disabled people aren’t just those in wheelchairs, 97% of disabilities aren’t visible. It’s all about removing the stigma and starting the dialogue. Over the last few years there has been a greater appetite to tackle the subject, due to the opening up of conversation surrounding mental health and wellbeing.
How can law firms build a more inclusive culture?
Yasmin: It comes back to starting the conversation, learning and listening to individuals, rather than not doing anything at all. In my workshops I talk about the four B’s: business, bias, behaviour and belonging. The first is business where we educate organisations on how to be inclusive and embed diversity and disability inclusion in decision making. We also assess structural bias, such as if the business is doing anything which is preventing disabled people from applying and how they are retaining disabled talent.
To eradicate bias, we look at behaviour, particularly at how organisations behave towards individuals with disabilities and what is acceptable. Doing so will then achieve a sense of belonging, encouraging an environment where people feel they belong, and where they can share their disability free from judgement.
What would you say to someone who is facing discrimination in the workplace due to their disability?
Yasmin: I would say if you are already employed in the firm, consider if there is somebody you trust and can confide in. I would also try where possible to deal with the issue internally. Consider an off the record conversation with a member of the HR team. Also, look if you have access to a disability network at work whom you can contact.
I welcome individuals to contact the Lawyers with Disabilities (LDD) at the Law Society Lawyers with Disabilities Division and we can match you with a mentor with a disability similar to yours, which can be of great support.
Reaching out is incredibly important, I know how isolating it can be when people don’t understand.
Could you share with us an example of your work with law firms, advising about disability related issues?
Yasmin: I’m Vice-Chair of LDD and we have been running events for law firms and disabled individuals plus providing mentors for almost 30 years. There’s been a been a vast array of success over the decades!
At the Law Society we are currently working on Legally disabled, a project being run at Cardiff University. The UK-based researchers have been doing extensive interviews with both disabled individuals whom are about to enter the profession and those already working within it. The project will be delivered on 24th January and we hope this will shine a light on the barriers and how they can be removed, we are very excited!
United Nations’ International Day of Disabled Persons is annually held on 3 December. This year’s theme "The Future is Accessible" means that we must all, together, look towards a future where the barriers which stand in people’s way no longer exist. What is one message you would send to the world on the occasion of this international day?
Yasmin: My message is simply to just listen to people. Everybody’s experience is different and we all have blind spots about what challenges others may be experiencing and what barriers stand in their way. It’s really important to use this day to start the dialogue, recognise the barriers and how they can be broken down.