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Our partner Peggy Hughes speaks to the Law Society Gazette about her life-changing experience of undergoing surgery to remove a brain tumour – and how it has altered her entire outlook on disability and inclusion.

I joined Mason Hayes & Curran in October 2011 as a partner specialising in pensions law. I set about building my practice, and did so with the privilege of good health in a world that was designed for me.

That changed somewhat when I was diagnosed with a brain tumour and underwent surgery in 2015 to have it removed. I then set off on a voyage of recovery and discovery. Very soon, I realised that I was experiencing neurological issues, including significant energy, light, and sound sensitivities, which I didn’t have prior to my brain surgery. My consultant explained that, in order to remove my tumour, he essentially had to inflict a massive brain injury upon me, and that the issues I was experiencing were entirely consistent with that type of brain injury.

As a former nurse, this was the point at which I recognised the reality of my situation and that it would probably be life changing. And it has been. I now essentially have acquired neurodiversity following that surgery – not that anyone needs a label – but sometimes it helps others to understand better. I now know what it is like to navigate a world that is not always designed for, or sympathetic to, my challenges, but I have learned to adapt. That is what people with disabilities or challenges do every day and, in the overall scheme of things, my challenges are not as great as many others. I have, more recently, also been through a cancer diagnosis and successful treatment. And, happily, life goes on.

The firm has been a huge support to me throughout all of this, working with me to accommodate my particular needs and challenges. I enjoy my work, and it has been really important to be able to continue to work. Thankfully, I have always enjoyed a challenge, though I could not have anticipated this particular journey!

Invisible disabilities

Not all disabilities are visible, and not everyone with a disability is comfortable discussing or disclosing it. In fact, in an ideal and fully inclusive world, nobody should have to declare or disclose a disability. Very few people enjoy putting their hand up to stand out from the crowd and ask for help. Cultivating a culture of greater openness and an environment in which everyone feels valued, safe, and comfortable to speak about their needs is vital to ensuring inclusion.

To this end, I believe that it is essential that more people in senior roles within organisations come forward to support disability equality more publicly and, where possible, speak more openly about their own challenges to help normalise disability/diversity. That is what leadership is about – and it is not easy. However, knowing that it is the right thing to do, may forge an easier path for others, and also have a positive impact on business, makes it worthwhile.

Taking the leap

I am a member of the firm's Diversity Committee, where my personal focus is disability access and inclusion, and I am also a member of the committee of the disAbility Legal Network. I am fully committed to contributing to these conversations. I truly understand that it takes courage to start or even participate in the conversation.

I was in no hurry to take the leap myself when initially approached by the disAbility Legal Network. However, I have found great support and encouragement. I hope that my openness will help. I would encourage other senior professionals with similar experiences to mine, and who haven’t already done do, to consider starting or joining the conversation within their own organisations. From the response I have seen to the disAbility Legal Network, I know there is a need and huge appetite for more openness and understanding on this issue.

Champion in the ranks

Professional service providers like lawyers are, of necessity, generally focused on driving the business. That involves a lot of juggling of competing interests and demands by people who are already very busy. To ensure that disability access and inclusion gets the focus needed within any organisation, I personally think it is essential to have a disability champion within the ranks who has a genuine passion for the issues and whose focus is to actively pursue a programme of disability inclusion – whether that be as part of a diversity committee or separately. It is only by giving it such close attention that it will achieve the necessary level of prominence within the business.

We do this in many other areas of our business, so disability inclusion is no different and, when you consider that people living with disabilities comprise the largest minority group on this planet, there is both a massive ethical and business case for making an increased impact in this area.

To do otherwise potentially excludes a valuable section of our society, which includes our colleagues and clients. In fact, given the increasing focus on ‘environmental, social and governance’ (ESG) within business, it always helps to remember that disability access and inclusion fall squarely within the ‘social’ pillar of ESG, and businesses must increasingly account for their performance under all pillars of ESG.

Creating ripples

UN statistics tell us that about 15% of the global population lives with disability and, in countries where life expectancy is over 70 years, everyone can expect to live about eight years of their life with some form of disability or accessibility need. So disability access and inclusion concerns all of us. It is understandable sometimes to think that anything I do as an individual is only a drop in the ocean given the potential scale of need. However, even a small drop of water creates ripples and has an impact beyond itself, so we can all make a difference.

Some people reading this article may feel unsure about how to make a difference in this area, including those in leadership positions. That is okay – I have felt the same in the past and I am still learning all the time. If this is you, I would encourage you to challenge yourself and your colleagues to consider and act on how you can make a contribution to disability access and inclusion within your own lives and within your own organisations. Undoubtedly, there has been progress over the years, but there is still a lot to do. It is as important as ever to take some action towards making progress. In fact, I would go so far as to say that ‘progress’ is the game changer. It is easy to fail to progress on disability inclusion while waiting for some perceived perfect solution or approach. Sometimes we simply don’t know where to start.

Becoming an ally

There are many organisations who are experts in this area and are happy to help businesses on this journey. It is worth remembering, though, that the real experts are people with disability themselves. They are generally only too happy to share their thoughts on how best to ensure their inclusion at work and in life generally. Often they just need someone to listen to them.

The disAbility Legal Network has produced a useful information leaflet, which can be found on its website. Perhaps accessing that leaflet or even signing up to become an ally of the network can be your starting point on this journey. I hope you can start or join the conversation in your own organisation, because we can all make a difference. So the call to action is that there is no time like the present to do something and, above all else, ‘let’s not sacrifice progress in the pursuit of perfection’.

This article first appeared in the Law Society of Ireland Gazette in May 2023.

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