“I was lucky to be raised in a home where I felt like my decisions were my own and I am privileged to access higher education as a disabled person. But as I looked at my options for law schools, which quickly dwindled to one, I wondered how many of my non-disabled peers had “flat footpaths” and “can roll between classes” at the top of their – “Must have at University” list. Probably very few.
Grace Stratton, 21, is currently nearing the end of her study for a double degree in law and communications at Auckland University of Technology, and tells this story about starting her university education. She runs a consultancy alongside firm SweeneyVesty, called All is for All, which helps to ensure that disabled people are understood, valued and given sovereignty over outcomes that affect them and stories that are told. The business, which is pan-disability, has provided countless opportunities for many disabled people and created jobs, changed minds and shifted systems. Grace is a supreme AIMES alumni, one of Forbes Asia’s 30 under 30, and the ACC supreme winner of the Attitude Awards. She’s also a proud life-long wheelchair user – having been diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy at age one.
Grace recently spoke alongside three other young people at the biennial conference of the International Association of Women Judges (IAWJ) in Auckland, where judges from around the world came together to share their vision for best practice in areas such as promoting human rights and combating domestic violence, discrimination and gender bias, both within the judiciary and the world at large.
Poorer outcomes for disabled people
“The reality of disability is perpetuated by society. Using a wheelchair brings about difficulties, but it doesn’t disable me from participation. I’m disabled by the world, by the way that things are designed and by people’s perceptions.” Grace said. “When you look at outcomes for disabled people, you can clearly see this disabling culture illustrated: one in five disabled children live in material hardship, disabled people are much less likely to be in full-time employment and more likely to experience sexual assault, with this hitting intellectually disabled persons the hardest. Global data by the Justice Department finds that they are seven times more likely to be survivors of sexual assault than non-disabled people.”
Create a more enabling society
These statistics are directly at odds with the brilliance of the disability community and Grace is motivated in all she does, to create a more enabling society. This is done both through the law, and in communications. Grace has worked for almost three years with leading firm SweeneyVesty, to help people understand accessibility and how communications shape the world. She will soon begin clerking at DLA Piper, and says that the relationships she has built with communicators like Greg Fahey and lawyers such as Reuben Woods at DLA Piper and Tiana Epati at the Law Society, along with the leading example of CJ Winkelmann, have helped her to see a pathway towards entering the legal profession.
She says that while she is still figuring out her future in law, she has many interests in many sectors, from Corporate all the way through to Criminal Defence, having been greatly inspired to study law because of Greg King. Grace’s passion is advocacy, access to justice, and working to create a system which functions for the many communities we should be serving. “This requires not only diversity, but a core understanding of the systematic barriers that communities face. It is the system, and its perceptions which often disable, more than any impairment.’’
The lived experiences of disabled people can lead to negative perceptions, and less willingness to interact with law, she says. Statistics New Zealand has highlighted that disabled people consistently reported significantly lower levels of trust in other people, and in key institutions, such as the health system, the education system, the courts, and the police, than non-disabled people. Grace suggests that by thinking about what is disabling them, we can improve these negative outcomes.
“Mine is a visual disability – people who meet me know that I am disabled because they can see it.” This has positive and negative aspects for Grace. The positive is that visual cues will allow judges and others to make the court environment accessible. “It’s general practice to stand when the judge enters, but obviously I get a pass on that!” she laughs. The negative side is that assumptions can be made about not being on the same level, because of what people wrongly associate wheelchair use with.
“This has the opposite impact on people with invisible disabilities or those who are neurodiverse. Unless the disability is disclosed, others are unable to make allowances. But the weight of that disclosure shouldn’t be on disabled people.” Grace says that many defendants in the court system and prison inmates may have neurological disabilities. “It’s estimated that 10% of the New Zealand population have dyslexia, but up to 90% of prison inmates. In the United Kingdom between 2-4% of the population have a learning disability, but in prison populations this is 32%. Fundamentally courts and the law need to ask themselves whether we understand enough about neurodiversity to make informed decisions. I believe the continued high rate of neurodiversity in our system, and our history, such as in Teina Pora’s case, shows us we do not know enough.”
It’s important to recognise the intersectionality between disabling experiences and how they culminate, when people with impairments are also more likely to experience poverty, have difficulty gaining employment and are less likely to succeed in education, they are disabled far beyond their impairment. But, disability does not need to change. Rather, the expectation that disabled people should succeed in an environment that is not designed for their success, must.
Disability in the legal profession
Grace says that at a very base level, this could be improved by having more disabled lawyers, which would make it easy for the profession to hear disabled voices. She challenges organisations to live up to the high-minded principles that are often captured in policy, but not in practice. “Lots of firms have inclusion or accessibility policies. Every man and his dog has a policy, very few live it out.” Her advice to firms is to make sure that they represent their policies. “People are aware of inauthentic inclusion, activism and tokenism. If everyone in your office looks like you, or a version of you then it’s a sign that more work needs to be done.” Mentorship can help, she adds.
She is hopeful that things will be easier for disabled people in future, as awareness improves and society responds. “Post-Covid it’s common for people to work from home. Disabled people have been asking to do this for years! We make allowances when they’re needed by the majority, but often if we stop and think, what one community is asking for may also be good for everybody.”
Her advice to law practices looking to be more inclusive is to live their values and have a conversation. “Sometimes people don’t talk about disability because they are afraid of getting it wrong. But, this leaves us without any way forward. It’s the nature of life that taking a step and trying is going to get you further than doing nothing.” Grace also mentions that she is not the only disabled person coming through the law, or working in it. She credits those before her and acknowledges Sophia Malthus and Krizel Pineda, her peers at AUT currently in their first and second years of study respectively.
“Historically and still today the law is used as a tool for exclusion, but the wonderful thing is there’s also examples of law changing the world for the better. The law provides a framework for the rest of society. It’s a mechanism to achieve inclusion and influence. The role of law is so fundamental, that if we’re not valuing inclusion and access, then how can we expect others to? We need to set the tone.”
Facts & Figures
Of disabled people aged 18-64:
- 23% reported not having enough money to meet every-day needs vs 7% for non-disabled people.
- 30% experienced discrimination within the last 12 months vs 19% for non-disabled people.
- 16% reported having a house/flat with a major problem with heating vs 6% for non-disabled people
- 39% of disabled people aged 18+ have no qualification vs 16% for non-disabled people.
- 23% of disabled 15+ year-olds are employed vs 70% for non-disabled people.
- 22% of disabled 15+ year-olds are unemployed or underutilised vs 12% for non-disabled people.
- 46% of disabled people aged 18+ reported having poor overall mental well-being vs 7% for non-disabled people.
Source: Statistics New Zealand’s Household Labour Force Survey June 2020