Recognizing Disabilities as Diversity

July 22, 2021

Diversity and inclusion is not a new concept for corporate America. Traditionally, D&I is thought to encompass race, gender, age, and religion, but including disabilities in that definition isn’t as universal. Even with 61 million adults living with a disability in the United States (26% of the population), many companies and people are unsure how to engage in the sometimes-difficult conversations around disability and best serve as allies.

Partner Craig Bitman, practice group leader for the employee benefits and executive compensation practice and co-leader of Morgan Lewis’s Disability Awareness Lawyer Network, shares how his experience being legally blind has shaped his career and how important it is to have a network of allies.

What do you hope to accomplish with more conversations about disabilities?

Disability is hard to discuss for a lot of people as it takes many different shapes and sizes. Sometimes abilities and disabilities are seen and sometimes they are not. It’s not a one-size-fits-all issue. I hope that people will be engaged in these discussions and willing to talk through how to play a bigger part in providing an inclusive culture and be a true ally. In doing so, it’s about becoming a partner to engage with, to empathize with, and to understand that we may need accommodations and that we do bring our own value and perspectives.

What was the thinking behind establishing a formal disability network?

What is important for people to know about this network is that we were created and are working each day to be a resource for our disabled lawyers and caregivers of disabled family members to come together, share their experiences, and learn from each other.

Our network is working to educate our colleagues and clients about the value that our disabled lawyers and those caring for disabled loved ones bring to our community and to make our lawyers aware of resources both within and outside the firm. These efforts are taking on the shapes of panel discussions, webinars, targeted outreach, and more. For instance, we recently hosted a “Disability Allyship and Awareness” panel during Neurodiversity Month which was open to all firm personnel and clients.

We are committed to working closely with firm leadership to advance the hiring, retention, and promotion of disabled lawyers and caregivers, working with our clients to partner on disability advocacy initiatives, and identifying outside leaders and organizations in the disability rights arena with whom we can collaborate on educational and pro bono opportunities.

How else has the firm been a disability ally?

I am legally blind, which basically means that my vision with correction is not better than 20/200 and is probably closer to 20/300 with correction. This has been something I've been dealing with since birth. Thankfully, my vision is fairly stable, which I like to say, means that, as I age, all of my friends’ vision is catching up to me.

Having been at the firm for nearly 20 years, I’ve learned the importance of technology and self-advocacy. Asking for things such as larger screens and making sure the apps on my phone can be seen properly helps to make things easier. I have found the firm more than willing to engage in these conversations with me and is a true ally to our network and this community.

How has COVID-19 impacted those who are disabled?

It has been a challenging time for us all, and there have been some unique issues for me working in a virtual environment. For instance, when people are sharing documents online during a video conference, that’s a problem for the visually impaired. As a result, I’m going to have to sit closer to the screen in a way that others do not. That’s OK. And others should be patient with that and understand that there’s a reason my face is so close to the camera.

This whole pandemic has been a challenge for those with disabilities and those caregivers of children who have a disability—visible or not. This has been majorly disruptive for them, and it creates a ripple effect. Speaking up for what can improve these situations now and in the future can make differences when they count.

What advice would you give to those looking to be allies?

Just be willing to have the necessary conversations around the situation. For instance, when I was in college, I was walking down the main drag at school with a friend of mine and we passed a woman who I was friendly with. As usual, I didn’t see her or couldn’t recognize her and didn’t say hello. She went out of her way to come over to me and say, “Hey, I noticed you didn't say hello to me, are you mad at me? Or is it you just didn't see me?” And I thought that small exchange took such courage on her part. I'm proud to say that I have now been married to her for over 20 years. That's true allyship!