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The reasonable adjustment gap

We firmly believe in the strength of diversity. Part of creating an inclusive legal services market is ensuring that people are not placed at a disadvantage when accessing legal services due to their disability.

There is a gap in what people with a disability currently receive and what they need from legal service providers. We set out to close this gap through a research project looking at what reasonable adjustments solicitors can provide. The first step? Understanding what reasonable adjustments are and how solicitors can offer them.

What are reasonable adjustments?

Reasonable adjustments might seem ambiguous. What one-person thinks is a reasonable adjustment might be wildly different from what another person thinks. However, under the Equality Act the duty to make reasonable adjustments is an objective question for the courts to ultimately determine.

The duty is an anticipatory and continuing one that solicitors owe to clients and prospective clients generally. This needs some forward planning to anticipate the requirements of people with disabilities and the adjustments that might need to be made. All businesses must take reasonable and proportionate steps to overcome barriers that people with disabilities may experience.

Sitting down with charities

Once we had a better grasp on reasonable adjustments, we moved on to the next step. Sitting down with charities and organisations to learn more about their experiences. On Valentine’s Day this year we cosied up with charities to sit down and chat about accessibility in legal services. Our “dates” were members from charities who help people with a range of disabilities. They give advice, help people access services and provide training to the public. They are the experts: helping people with a disability live their normal lives. Their insight into how we can improve accessibility within the legal services market was invaluable.

We recognise that disability is very broad.

Different types of disabilities have different needs. It is impossible to host one roundtable event and believe that we now have a total understanding of what reasonable adjustments are needed. For those who were unable to attend on the day, we also sent round a questionnaire to more than 60 charities. The responses help us to better understand people’s experiences and inform our research approach.

We asked our dates about their experiences using legal services. What were the good, the bad and the barriers when trying to find and use the services of a solicitor?

There was a common theme that surfaced during the event. In general, there was a lack of understanding about disabilities. People (solicitors included) did not know how to ask someone about their specific needs. This leads to a gap between what people with a disability need and what they get.

Bridging the gap

So how to bridge this gap? It is twofold. First, treat people with a disability with respect. Second, ask someone what reasonable adjustments they need. Though this sounds simple, it is a powerful solution.

We heard the story of a person with a visual impairment who was seeking legal expertise. During a meeting, their solicitor rolled their eyes, thinking that the person could not see. This is outrageous, and indicative of the critical need for discussion around disability. The lack of respect reflects the deeper problem: a lack of understanding. To improve understanding, we need to open dialogue. We need to ask people with a disability about what their needs are.

We heard that solicitors do not usually ask people if they have specific needs until the client care pack is given out. This can often be too little, too late. People might need reasonable adjustments from the first moment of contact. Often, people with a disability feel that solicitors might panic when they find out about their disability because the solicitor:

  • does not know what to do
  • does not know what to say
  • feels bad about not having provided special assistance earlier on
  • worries they might discriminate against someone

Based on this insight, solicitors would benefit from asking questions and being curious in order to make people feel more comfortable. Clients need to feel like they can disclose their disability and their needs. When both solicitors and clients feel comfortable talking about disability, accessibility in legal services improves.

What reasonable adjustments are people looking for?

People with a disability feel that solicitors overestimate what adjustments they will need.

Reasonable adjustments are unique to the person asking for them. They are varied, but include things as simple as using larger font in emails or letters.

Reasonable adjustments do not need to be costly or timely to implement. A good example is websites. These need to be accessible, and while updating an entire website can be costly, there are some simple low-cost changes:

  • Give images a description for their file names
  • QR codes can be scanned to read a summary of a website’s content or a printed document (QR codes are machine readable codes made up of black and white squares)
  • Use fixed links on your site (drop down menus can be difficult for people with mobility or dexterity issues)

What’s next?

Our Valentine’s Day discussions gave us an insight into the kind of things that others think, need and want.

Working with our research partner, YouGov, we will use our findings to develop our surveys and consumer testing. This research will give solicitors more information on what reasonable adjustments they can give. This will help people with disabilities have a better experience when accessing legal services.

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