This article was written by a guest author, who would like to remain anonymous.
I decided to write this blog to raise awareness after reading an article in the Law Society Gazette dated 30 April 2021.
In this article, it was reported that the SRA had announced a blanket ban on assistive technology for the SQE Part 1 Exam and that the offer for individuals with a visual impairment is limited to an ‘individual reading service’ delivered by a qualified solicitor.
Whilst the SRA says that it will consider individual circumstances, I do not think that is good enough, because the SRA’s failure to allow the use of assistive technologies as standard means that people with disabilities will be less likely to think that a career as a solicitor is for them.
What is my disability?
I have a rare eye condition and my most recent eye tests showed that I fall somewhere between partially sighted and blind. I am under the care of two ophthalmologists.
I have regular extensive eye tests at different eye hospitals to monitor any vision loss. These tests look at my central and peripheral vision. They take detailed photographs of my eyes to monitor the damage. I have lost a lot of my peripheral vision. Luckily, I have only had to have a few invasive procedures to preserve my vision. Currently, my vision is stable which I am grateful for. However, in the future I may have to undergo major surgery and there is a real risk I could lose more vision.
How does it affect my work?
I am a qualified solicitor and I work at a small legal aid firm. I am only able to work part-time currently due to my disability. I usually work flexibly with regular breaks. If I work for longer than my typical hours or on a bad day, my vision becomes blurred or I will see double. I can also have blank patches in my vision which makes it difficult to read text on a screen. I sometimes have an “aura” which can include flashing lights, rainbows or streaks of lights which can make me faint.
I work for a firm that enables me to make use of numerous invaluable reasonable adjustments. I work from home. I work part-time hours. I can take regular breaks throughout the day. I work flexibly with my hours so if I am having a bad day or have a medical appointment, I can make up my hours.
However, one of the most important reasonable adjustments for me is my equipment. I have “photophobia” which means I am sensitive to light. I wear tinted glasses all the time, even on dull days. The settings on my laptop include dark mode and filters to ensure there is less glare. I also use dictation and reading software to assist with drafting and reading documents. These tools are vital to enable me to practice. These may seem like small things, but they enable me to read and write legal documents as quickly as someone without a visual impairment.
How would this affect me?
On the face of it, the SRA’s offer might seem like an adequate reasonable adjustment. You might think reading out questions and answers to someone with a visual impairment would be helpful.
However, someone like me would not be able to sit the SQE with a reader for several reasons:
- I would be expected to sit an exam in conditions with fewer reasonable adjustments than when I am in practice.
- I would agree with Jane Burton of the LDD that this would be a ‘very stressful and tiring’ way to take an exam.
- I would not be able to have the settings I need on the computer to ensure I can use it safely.
- I sometimes suffer from “brain fog” due to my disability and require information to be written down to retain it.
The volume of ‘360 questions and 1,440 multiple choice answers’ would not be workable for using a reader, even with additional time.
What would I propose?
As a disabled person, I feel let down by my regulatory body. The SQE was intended to be a device to promote diversity in the legal profession; not to hinder it.
The SRA states that it has consulted ‘extensively with a range of disability stakeholders, including with the Association of Disabled Lawyers and [the Law Society’s] Lawyers with Disabilities Division’.
I have followed these groups and I am confused why concerns raised by these stakeholders have been completely disregarded by the SRA. Whilst I acknowledge the SRA says that it will consider individual circumstances on a case-by-case basis, I do not think that is good enough, and I believe that a blanket ban on assistive technology would be considered unlawful.
I would urge the SRA to undertake further consultation with disability stakeholders, and to actually listen to, and action, their recommendations, specifically regarding assistive technology.
This should certainly happen before the first set of SQE examinations goes ahead. However, I believe it is also important to acknowledge that people with disabilities will already be put off from qualifying as a solicitor through the SQE route, and undertaking what can be expensive SQE training courses. They may well be, because they know that assistive technologies (used by me in my everyday practice as a solicitor) are banned from the examination that would allow them to qualify.
I am confused why the SRA would be doing work to promote the use of tech in law and the legal sector, and yet wouldn’t want to embrace the tech that can mean that people with disabilities are able to qualify into practice.
I believe that this decision by the SRA to ban assistive technologies will have a chilling effect on the inclusion of people with disabilities; and whether they can see a career as a solicitor for them.