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Peter Blanck Discusses Law Firms & Disability with ABA Journal

Posted on Thursday 10/25/2018
Peter Blanck

Are law firms committed to disability diversity? A handful of firms have taken action

(ABA Journal | Oct. 24, 2018) Five years ago, Luke Debevec was worried that his career, and maybe even his life, was in jeopardy. He started having seizures at work and was diagnosed with epilepsy, a disability that impacted his billable hour statistics.

The diagnosis couldn’t have come at a worse time. He was up for partner at Reed Smith, and his sudden health threat filled him with concern that his firm would deny his promotion.

He need not have worried—Debevec got his promotion. “When a business makes a decision to promote people, that’s visible and speaks a lot to the values of the organization,” he says. “People see that.”

Ensuring that other disabled lawyers can make partner is a prime reason that Debevec co-founded Reed Smith’s disability affinity group, LEADRS (Looking for Excellence and Advancement of Disabled Attorneys). Attorneys with disabilities need more room for opportunity, he says. “There’s plenty of ability, but if we’re always focusing on the thing the person can’t do, you don’t focus on what the person can contribute,” he argues.

As the nation in October celebrates National Disability Employment Awareness Month, statistics show that the legal profession as a whole either isn’t doing its fair share to recruit, retain and advance attorneys with disabilities, or it has failed to be inclusive enough for disabled lawyers to feel comfortable disclosing their impairments. Many law firms state generally that they’re welcoming to people with disabilities, but only a handful have put their words into meaningful action ...

... Society has placed a stigma on disability, an obstacle that stops many disabled attorneys from telling their firms, says Peter Blanck, a Syracuse University College of Law professor and chairman of the university’s Burton Blatt Institute, which works to better the lives of people with disabilities. He says lawyers with mental health disabilities—who often don’t even recognize their condition as a disability—face the biggest stigma, while there’s less stigma attached to physical disabilities like blindness, hearing loss and mobility.

“There’s always an unfortunate link made between competency and mental or physical perceived abilities of others,” he notes ...

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