Diversity has improved in most areas, but disabled law students are still marginalised, says LegalAware
All law schools deserve to be scrutinised very carefully in their response to the government white paper entitled, 'Students at the heart of the system', over the issue of whether disabled students are seriously disenfranchised.
The formidable white paper, which was published in June, sets out proposals for a higher education sector which is sustainably funded, delivers a "better student experience", and contributes fully to the efforts to increase social mobility. The ability of a disabled student to get a job is a massively significant factor in that individual's social mobility; virtually all individuals do not aspire to sustain themselves through the Disability Living Allowance (DLA) itself. An adverse effect of the legal aid cuts may be to put off disabled applicants from applying for the DLA. Good law schools will wish to embrace the National Student Survey, and participate in it to the full.
The Law Society runs a very active Lawyers with Disabilities Division, which is committed to promoting equality of opportunity for people with disabilities - whether they are solicitors, would-be solicitors, or clients. This group has campaigned vigorously for its members, starting in 2009 with a drive to encourage employers to take on trainees and solicitors with disabilities. Disabled or not, most students will wish to consider whether they want to commit to a lengthy training which may not even culminate in a training contract, pupillage or other job. Law students must be made aware of a very helpful document entitled, 'Bridging the gap: a guide to the disabled students' allowances'. It is sad that in modern society disability has become a bit of a "white elephant"; lawyers still face discrimination.
Old burgeoning problems still exist. While disabled people have certain medical issues which should be addressed (in my case, double vision due to meningitis a few years ago), disabled students should not unwittingly at any time of their training be made to feel "ill". Again, it is not simply a central issue of allowing those disabled citizens who wish to be in the legal profession fundamental dignity and respect. Law schools vary, but it is commendable that Bristol Law School follows an educational model to address the needs of individuals.
Lest they forget, law students should remember that the purpose of the law is to remedy problems of society - and the law is hopefully on their side. All students of constitutional law remember the central tenet of the law, that everybody is equal in front of the law. The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (DDA) introduced a public authority equality duty. According to the Directgov.UK website, pursuant to the new Equality Act (2010), a new combined public authority duty was introduced from April 2011, covering disability.
It will be intriguing to see how the traditional universities and private legal education providers react to both the aspirational and legally-enforceable components of putting "disabled students at the heart of any system". Disabled students are sadly not at the moment, and most of us unfortunately know it.
LegalAware is the head of the BPP Legal Awareness Society, and a keen and devoted legal blogger.