Anna Fletcher may just be the ideal employment lawyer to advise on disability. She has over 25 years' experience in employment law and nearly as long in managing a changing and unpredictable medical condition: just the sort employers tend to find the most challenging to deal with.
As a senior employment lawyer at Gowling WLG, a full service international law firm, her clients are employers. But she knows exactly what it’s like to be on the other side of the table. ‘I began to notice I was losing vision in my left eye in 1997. I had an operation but it wasn’t until 2004 when the condition began to affect my right eye that I got a diagnosis. I have punctate inner choroidopathy (PIC), a very rare macular condition where inflammation occurs at the back of the eye causing irreversible damage to the retina. Fortunately the treatment stopped the bleeding but I still lost some of my central vision. There's no cure and I don’t know when or if my sight might deteriorate again.
‘Most of the time I try to forget about it but I really notice when I’m very tired or feeling less resilient. I can go into a spiral of thinking I’m going to have another deterioration in my sight. Having a condition with no cure and about which I can do nothing can be hard to deal with.
’When PIC came along, it made a massive difference to how Anna saw both herself and her work. ‘I was already an employment lawyer but perhaps I didn't look at the concept of disability and in particular reasonable adjustments in same way. I saw them more as a process than as an emotional journey.’
She was on her own emotional journey. ‘Despite my work, I didn’t feel comfortable sharing with other people not least because it was so difficult to explain the issues with my sight. I wouldn’t tell clients I couldn’t read papers quickly. (However, it does however mean that I take in a lot of information because I have to pay attention to detail from the off.)
‘I had a bit of an epiphany when a former colleague organised an event on mental health and I found myself volunteering to speak. It had dawned on me that there was an often unacknowledged link between physical disability and mental health. I talked to the Macular Society and Focus , a local charity for sight loss and disability. The input from both organisations was fantastic. I was so nervous about speaking about something so personal but the reception I received was overwhelmingly positive with the result that I felt really galvanised. It was empowering. Now I’m confident to speak up and try to encourage colleagues to do the same. Talking about my condition has made all the difference to how I feel about myself.’ It’s quite a story for anyone who may be reluctant to share. For Anna, it was also the start of a journey that led to her becoming a trustee of the Macular Society as well as chair of Enable, the disability network at Gowling WLG.
Talking is central to Anna’s professional approach too. ‘Our advice to clients is often not to argue about whether a particular impairment is protected by the law but to focus on taking action that will enable someone to do their job. If they need a bit of kit or flexibility, just talk it through rather than getting fixated on the law. That discussion is likely to lead to actions which in turn ensure legal compliance but don’t overly formalise the process’
Is the existing discrimination legislation sufficient? ‘I don’t think it needs changing. We have the Equality and Human Rights Commission Code of Practice and lots of other sources of information for employers, which is really excellent. It’s more about changing attitudes: small steps, small changes. We need to move away from focusing on the letter of the law and towards good practice. PurpleSpace is an excellent example of an organisation providing just that sort of support.
‘Issues arise when people stop talking to each other. People file grievances because they feel they’re not being listened to. Keep talking.’
For Anna, disability-confidence is not about employers ticking a box and moving on to the next thing. ‘It is about continual improvement, hardwiring accessibility into the organisation. As technology advances and medical treatments advance so can the adjustments employers make. You can never say it’s job done.’
At PurpleSpace we see creating a culture in which sharing is possible as a key step in any network’s evolution. It takes a bit of practice to learn to share your story in the way Anna has done but her experience shows that while sharing information about disability and how we feel about it may feel like a terrible burden, it can actually be liberating. In 2019 we will be running more open workshops showing how storytelling can transform workplace culture. It can even, as in Anna’s case, open doors you may not even know are there. We wish her every success as a charity trustee as well as a network chair.
Gowling WLG Fact Box
- international law firm covering energy, financial services, life sciences, natural resources, infrastructure, real estate and technology
- 18 offices around the world
- 1400 staff
- 9,400 pro bono hours
Spotlight on... is our series of deep dive conversations with an exceptional group of disability change agents. These disability network leaders, champions and allies talk to journalist Jim Pollard about their unique contributions and approaches to the narrative of building personal and business disability confidence from the inside out.
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