Guide to Accessibility Planning for Law Firms

  • March 12, 2014
  • Jean Cumming

There is no sharp line between a disability policy and a healthy workplace policy—a fact that law firms would do well to remember when they are considering accessibility issues for lawyers with disabilities. Accessibility benefits entire firms, their members and their clients.

“The duty to accommodate is a human rights principle endorsed by the Supreme Court of Canada and would apply to law firms and legal organizations,” says Yvonne Peters, a Winnipeg lawyer and advocate for persons with disabilities.  “The principle requires employers/service providers to remove barriers and institute measures to enable the full participation of persons with disabilities.”

The Case for Accessibility Planning

Needs Can Arise Over Time

Besides fulfilling basic responsibilities relating to human rights and equality, an accessibility plan also makes good business sense. Law firm decision-makers may not feel that they need an accessibility plan if there is not currently a disabled lawyer on staff. But there is an inherent problem with this logic. As lawyers age, many will develop disabilities.

In addition, large numbers of people experience temporary impairments caused by illness or accident that impact their abilities on the job. That’s why “universal design” is so important—design that makes facilities easier for all employees to use are also those that fit into an accessibility plan. You never know when a lawyer is going to need accessibility measures in place.

Recruit and Retain the Best Employees

Quite simply, if firms plan for accessibility, lawyers with disabilities will be inclined to apply there for employment. As it is, lawyers with disabilities often stay within governmental departments and agencies where the commitment to accessibility is mandated. There are also more opportunities in the public sector for employees with disabilities to network, according to Carole Willans-Théberge, Department of Justice Counsel. Firms are missing out if they have not made themselves welcoming to all of the most qualified lawyers.

Increase Productivity for All Employees

Accessibility planning can improve employee satisfaction, morale and increase productivity by facilitating collaboration and communication among all staff. Employees with or without disabilities will be able to collaborate on projects, share files and communicate with each other more easily.

Improve Communication and Services to Clients

Accessibility planning will ensure that your services meet the needs of all potential clients, and that those clients can actually communicate with staff, understand your informational materials, and access your building. This constitutes an obvious business advantage by immediately expanding your potential client base.

Failure to plan can result in client frustration, delays, decreased efficiency and the risk of human rights complaints against your firm. Not to mention the negative word-of-mouth publicity that could ensue.

Financial Considerations

Firms are often concerned with the financial ‘impediment’ involved in accessibility planning. In many cases, however, an accessibility plan can help reduce costs over the long term. For instance, when an employee goes on temporary disability, unprepared firms can lose time and money that could be saved by having accessible facilities and technology in place.

Winnipeg lawyer Yvonne Peters says that despite this, there are still significant barriers within the legal profession for persons with disabilities.  “Some of those barriers stem from negative attitudes and some stem from the nature of how law is practiced,’ she says. “Members of a law firm are generally valued for the amount of revenue they can generate. Having to pay for certain accommodations may cause a lawyer with a disability to be seen as less productive or less valuable as a contributing member.”

She adds: “Most accommodations do not cost a lot of money and are no different than the office support already provided.  However, because they are associated with a particular person with a disability, they may be seen as ‘special’ or ‘extra’ or ‘different’.  Some forms of accommodation may only require some initial expenditures such as making the work site physically accessible.”

Five Steps for Making Your Law Firm Accessible

Once you’ve committed to making your practice more accessible, here are some recommended next steps:

1. Identify a Person or Group to Take the Lead

To ensure an efficient, smooth and consistent approach to accessibility planning, appoint an individual or group of individuals to head the project. A good candidate should have an understanding of the firm’s current policies, facilities and technology, as well as a genuine understanding of the issues affecting persons with disabilities. The individual(s) should also have some decision-making clout within the firm, especially when it comes to financial considerations, so that recommendations can be acted upon. Endorsement at the partner level is key to instilling a firm-wide commitment to accessibility planning.

2. Develop a Policy on Accessibility

Law firms should have a clearly-written accessibility policy, developed in consultation with persons with disabilities and those interested in human rights policy.  Generally the policy should include a commitment to equality and accommodation and a process for how accommodations will be implemented at the law firm.

Alan Cantor, consultant and principal of Cantor Access Incorporated, advises lawyers wondering where to start to “look at the policies of organizations that are mandated to have policies under the Canadian Employment Equity Act,” or by provincial legislation. The federal Act applies to all federally-regulated private sector employers and Crown corporations with 100 or more employees, and all federal government departments and agencies for which the Treasury Board is the employer. Provincial legislation applies to provincial government bodies and related organizations.

Your accessibility plan should include:

  • a report on the measures the firm has taken to date to identify, remove and prevent barriers to people with disabilities;
  • the measures in place to make sure that the organization assesses its proposals for by-laws, policies, programs, practices and services;
  • a list of by-laws, policies, programs, practices and services the firm will review in the coming year to identify barriers; and
  • a plan as to how the organization intends to identify, remove and prevent barriers.

Firms that currently employ lawyers with disabilities should address their specific accommodation requirements in planning. But no two lawyers with disabilities have the exact same needs, so be careful not to generalize.

3. Identify Barriers to Accessibility

A policy sets out a commitment to search for barriers. After formulating your firm’s plan, you should then start identifying specific barriers. Accessibility Ontario defines a "barrier" as “anything that stops a person with a disability from fully taking part in society because of that disability.” Barriers can take on a number of forms, namely:

  • Physical – i.e. a door that may be difficult to open for someone lacking upper-body strength;
  • Architectural – i.e. no elevators in a building of more than one floor;
  • Communicational – i.e. a publication that is not available in large print;
  • Attitudinal –  i.e. assuming people with a disability can't perform a certain task when in fact they can;
  • Technological –  i.e. software or Web site that does not meet basic standards of accessibility
  • Policy/Practice – i.e. not offering different ways to complete a test as part of job hiring.

Many barriers are easy to remove or prevent—it’s identifying them in the first place that can be tricky. The Ontario Act describes six way to approach barrier identification:

  1. Note previously identified barriers
  2. Brainstorm a list of known and suspected barriers
  3. Solicit staff contributions
  4. Consult the wider community
  5. Conduct accessibility assessments using guides and checklists
  6. Hire professionals to conduct assessments, where appropriate

4. Develop a Plan for Barrier Removal and Prevention

Once barriers are identified, they should be prioritized based on their degree of inaccessibility and how significantly they impact on persons with disabilities. Based on this information, you should decide which barriers to remove now, and which to remove at a later date. A realistic timeline should be identified for removing all barriers. You should then set performance criteria to ensure that barriers are adequately removed and prevented. This criteria should be based on outcome rather that output. For example, instead of planning to “add automatic doors to the main entrance of the building”, your performance goal should be “make the main entrance accessible to all persons with disabilities.”

Lastly, it is essential to assign responsibility for the removal of the barrier, and to allocate the necessary resources for its removal. When requesting approval for funds, be sure to highlight both the human rights issues and the long-term economic advantages of going forward with the plan.

5. Develop a System for Monitoring Progress

It is important to follow up recommendations with a review of their effectiveness upon implementation. Disabled lawyers and clients, along with members of disabilities organizations (if possible), should be asked how effective barrier removal and prevention has been since the plan has been put in place. The responsible individual(s) should report regularly on progress being made toward eliminating all barriers in the workplace.

The Value of Hiring Outside Expertise

There is a range of consultants available to guide your firm through the policy development, planning and implementation of workplace accessibility. Typically, they’ll go into a firm where there is an employee with a disability, evaluate the current steps being taken and make recommendations on what the employer needs to do to make the workplace more accessible.

Consultants can also recommend affordable adaptive technologies, such as a track ball (instead of a mouse) for those with repetitive strain injuries , or voice-recognition software. For lawyers, the price of other adaptive technologies is driven higher by the nature of legal work. There are accuracy issues for scanning systems, which lawyers need to be as accurate as possible. Therefore, firms are more likely to need more expensive models. In addition, a Braille display terminal can cost anywhere from $8,000 to $12,000. There are a number of provincial assistive devices programs which may help defray some costs for smaller law firms.

“There is a staggering array of technology out there,” says Steve Barclay, VP of Sales and Marketing at the Vancouver office of the Aroga Marketing Group. “So if you’re looking at hiring somebody with a disability, look at the person—not the disability. There are all kinds of ways to help the person to be productive in the workplace.”

The Last Word

An accessibility plan is only useful if your firm adopts healthy attitudes toward lawyers with disabilities. In 2001, the Law Society of B.C.’s Disability Research Working Group of the Equity and Diversity Committee reported on research into attitudes and accommodation in law schools and the profession, and found that:

“Discriminatory practices not only prevent career advancement, but produce such stress that a frequent result is overwork, burn-out and failure in both private firms and government departments. Lawyers with disabilities are seldom kept on after articling. Finding employment is very difficult. Accommodating lawyers who have disabilities is considered to be too expensive, and there are very few financial incentives or tax breaks available. If a disability appears to interfere with the economic bottom line, the lawyer is likely to be let go. The common accommodation of working part time is now allowed, but is not yet well accepted within the legal profession. Since disclosure of disability generally leads to discrimination, there is a tendency for lawyers to hide their disabilities, or the extent of their disabilities. More than half of the lawyers who participated in this study spoke about how discrimination eventually led to loss of employment, marginalization into solo practice or early retirement.

Prejudice, devaluing and negative stereotypes that equate disability with incompetence appear to be widespread negative attitudes within the legal profession. Respondents talked about how this prejudice becomes internalized, resulting in an image of one’s self being second rate and the feeling that asking for accommodations is a sign of weakness. Some respondents expressed concern about instances of judges and others showing impatience, intolerance and lack of awareness about disability issues. Respondents also identified access barriers in courtrooms and other parts of the legal workplace. These include communication, physical and print barriers, as well as social marginalization. Legal practice was described by several respondents as a very conservative profession that is resistant to change.

Despite these barriers, respondents identified a number of resources available to lawyers who have disabilities. Many lawyers with disabilities have had some positive career experiences. Respondents gave examples of situations where appropriate accommodations had been provided. Respondents identified mentors such as other lawyers with similar disabilities, supportive colleagues and court personnel and allies, such as disability advocates and other equity and diversity groups in the legal profession. Many respondents also identified their own self-initiative, hard work and self-advocacy (including disclosure of disability) as making a positive difference in a challenging profession, and told stories about transforming experiences of discrimination into new professional opportunities.

The main purpose of this research was to identify barriers, and so respondents were not specifically asked to make suggestions for addressing the barriers they identified. However, a number of respondents did make some suggestions… The most common suggestion was that the legal profession should acknowledge existing discrimination and seek solutions that will lead to the equity for lawyers with disabilities as guaranteed in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The solutions may involve policy changes, funding initiatives and political will.”

Doesn’t that inspire you to make your firm more accessible?

Additional Resources

Lawyers with Disabilities: Identifying Barriers to Equality
Report of the Law Society of B.C.’s Disability Research Working Group of the Equity and Diversity Committee

Accessibility Ontario
Guides to accessibility planning, compliance with provincial legislation and more.

Guide to Developing a Law Firm Policy Regarding Accommodation Requirements
Expansive guide by the Law Society of Upper Canada covering the gamut of accomodation issues, including a section on accomodation of disability.

Enablelink (Canadian Abilities Foundation) Directory of Canadian Disability Links
Search for links to disability information in Ontario and all of Canada.

Ontario March of Dimes Accessibility Directory
One-stop resource of Ontario-based companies and organizations that provide services or assistance for people with disabilities.

University of Toronto Adaptive Technology Resource Centre
Advances information technology that is accessible to all; through research, development, education, proactive design consultation and direct service.

Trace R&D Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison
The Center publishes a database of more than 18,000 products available for people with disabilities, as well as a resource book that can be ordered online.

Accessible Technology Vendor Sites



Jean Cumming is a freelance legal affairs writer in Toronto.