Neurodiverse individuals are increasingly making rightful headway in the workplace, but still face a number of barriers, particularly in the terms of the professions in which they can find employment.
Conditions such as autism and dyslexia, for example, are often not discovered until adulthood when a career path has already been chosen. We spoke to lawyer and performance poet Sam Rapp, who performs as The Dyslexic Poet, about her legal career and the issues she has faced, but also the opportunities that being dyslexic have given her.
Some estimates suggest that as much as 10 per cent of the population are neurodivergent. As Ben Power, Founder and managing partner of Springhouse Solicitors, wrote in The Law Society Gazette earlier this year in response to a poll which found only one in 10 HR professionals make any consideration of neurodiversity in their management practices; "frankly that figure seems a little on the optimistic side - I’ve never seen a law firm staff handbook with a neurodiversity policy in it". Certainly Sam Rapp, a lawyer and spoken word performer, found her early years in the law hard going.
Despite having always struggled at school she got a 2:1 law degree with the assistance of someone to help her with her grammar. While working on the side of the defence, trials could be hard to follow as her condition makes her forgetful, however she had a good record on behalf of her clients. This changed when she moved over to prosecution, as she says; "It wasn’t until I decided to move away from defence that things changed, although my work had been criticised as my writing was so poor, it wasn’t until I changed my role that I experienced bullying and discrimination in the workplace. I was diagnosed with dyslexia and other associated traits... I realised all these years what the issues were, I now had a label."
Once a person has an official diagnosis, the employer finds themselves with a work issue that they must address. Hopefully in a positive way, though this has sadly not been the case for Sam.
It goes without saying that the bullying and discrimination that Sam experienced in her career should have no place in a modern professional environment. People who have achieved a high level of expertise in any field, but perhaps especially such a language-based profession, overcoming the obstacles presented by dyslexia, deserve respect from their non-dyslexic colleagues; something which wasn’t happening in this particular case.
So what can be done to make life at work easier for neurodiverse people in law and other professions? First of all, it is a matter of urgency that neurotypical staff are aware that arrangements made for their dyslexic or autistic work colleagues are there to help everyone and avoid misunderstandings, not to give the person an unfair advantage. Staff training to increase recognition and understanding of the issues are a must. Sam believes that all the available assistive technology to help dyslexic people realise their full potential should be used; "Employers and businesses should be aware of a number of hidden disabilities, not just dyslexia - there are software programmes that can help, such as voice command and grammar assistance. Dyslexics have slower processing speeds and it takes us time, they (colleagues) need to be aware of this."
In the wider neurodiverse world, people with autism or asperger’s who have issues with concentration and face to face communication may benefit from things such as noise cancelling headphones and alternative forms of written interaction. It is again very important that the HR department and work colleagues are completely up to speed in these matters.
It is safe to say that neurodiverse people can flourish and be an asset to any business if given the right encouragement. It is not just political correctness to say this. Highly intelligent people can find their niche in law and other professions, even if they have sensory issues that require support on a day to day basis. Some will be classed as "disabled" for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010 and some will not. Many would not classify themselves in that manner in any case. But firms must not make that the dividing line. They should do this because they want to make neurodiverse people with talent feel at home, rather than because the law demands it.
As it stands, it’s unclear whether Sam Rapp will be lost to the legal profession as an effective defence lawyer. She has in recent years become an award-winning writer and spoken word artist, and as she puts it; "I perform as The Dyslexic Poet and have been able to move away from the law and write full time. I am finally doing a job I love, being a writer. With people who never judge me I feel free, and trusted like an equal, no one discriminated against me in the creative world. They accept me for who I am."
For Sam, her negative experience of how her employers dealt with her condition has been a spur to change career and follow a different path. But if the legal (and other) professions wish to retain or attract neurodiverse people, perhaps they need to start making a better case.