The United Nations' International Day of Persons with Disabilities on 3 December aims to promote the rights and wellbeing of disabled people in all parts of society and increase awareness of their situation in every aspect of political, social, economic and cultural life. John Ballantine, a member of the Law Society of Scotland's Equalities Law Sub-Committee, a retired solicitor, a disabled person and a Member of the SSC Society, reflects on six ways that life has changed for disabled solicitors, since he qualified in 1981.
- The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 introduced the concept of reasonable adjustments. It meant, for example, an employer provided me with a trolley to move files round an office. But I am not sure if the legislation has improved the career prospects of disabled solicitors very much. Back in 1986, I noticed that my salary rose by about 40 per cent when I moved from private practice to the public sector, but I think this was due to different pay scales, rather than a more positive attitude to disability as such.
- The Equality Act has imposed duties to make buildings and services accessible, but with my disability hat on, it is surprising how often one still encounters silly problems, such as a public house with its accessible toilet down a flight of stairs and no lift to get you there. This sort of issue arises, because the training of architects places very little emphasis on the need to design accessible buildings - an issue that my local access panel has raised with the Scottish Government. There also remains a shortage of accessible and affordable housing.
- It might be thought that public sector buildings would be better designed or at least be more compliant with Public Sector Equality Duties. However, it is difficult to take an old building and make it comply with accessibility legislation, particularly if the building is listed, such as the Court of Session in Edinburgh. There is a lift in that building, but it is not in a particularly convenient place and, if I am attending a meeting of the SSC Society, it takes me quite a lot of time and effort to get down the stairs to their premises. The food and wine after their meetings and the accompanying conversation though is always excellent.
- Technology has changed the lives of disabled solicitors as much as it has the lives of other people. When I started work in 1975, there were no dictation machines and word processors were thought to be advanced in the 1980s. Recently technology enabled about 40 of us to have an enjoyable virtual meeting with our president, Amanda Millar, without leaving our homes.
- Have attitudes to disabled people improved in the legal profession since 1981? There is certainly more awareness of disability and of the rights of disabled people than was the case then. It would be possible for a disabled person to aim to qualify as a solicitor in order to specialise in disability discrimination law, an option that did not exist when I qualified. There is certainly a wide range of issues that can now be litigated and bodies available to help, such as the equality and human rights commission or the free representation unit of the Faculty of Advocates. I think there has been some improvement in attitudes towards disabled people in my lifetime, but there is some way still to go until we can truly say that we live in a society in which everyone has equal access to the law, which is not the same thing as possessing theoretically equal rights in law.
- I was lucky enough in the legal profession to work in five different towns in Scotland, as well as the cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh. I have many experiences I can look back and hope that many disabled people will join the legal profession in the future. The International Year of Disabled People in 1981 certainly gave rise to many projects and charities, which benefit disabled people to this day.