Nearly 50 years ago I was born with proximal focal femoral deficiency – my left femur did not develop properly and nor did the bones adjacent to it. I required extensive surgery in 1982 which involved the amputation of my left leg so I could be fitted with an artificial leg with a knee joint.
It was a very different world back then. There was no counselling, very little physiotherapy and artificial limb technology hadn’t moved on much from the early 20th Century. Legs were heavy and cumbersome. I am glad to note that things have changed a lot since then – technology has improved, albeit we owe much of those improvements to the young men who have lost limbs on foreign battlefields. There seems to be a much greater awareness of the need to be able to talk to people about any problems or difficulties you are having and a much greater effort, protected by legislation such as the Equality Act 2010 to prevent unlawful discrimination against disabled people.
So I have no idea what it would have been like to have been born in 2000, rather than 1970, and embarking now on a career at the Bar. My parents tried to ignore my disability as much as possible and promoted a ‘get on with it attitude’. I think 90% of the time that was the right approach but equally for the 10% of times when it wasn’t, I think someone to talk to could have made a big difference. I am now a member of the Limbless Association and a volunteer visitor, but I have no idea if there is any kind of mentoring in place for physically disabled barristers. There was nothing like that I place for me growing up, and it just never occurred to me to ask.
I also suspect some things remain constant. There simply aren’t very many of us and this has an obvious impact on how we are seen and what provisions are made for us. I am the only barrister on the Western Circuit I know who has a serious physical disability. There may be others that I haven’t met, but I suspect the sheer difficulty of life on a Circuit for those with a physical disability makes us a rare breed indeed.
While most people are very kind and keen to help, I am keenly aware of how the physical environment of most courts, and the journeys to them, act as a barrier to the physically disabled. A particular challenge are the fire alarm tests at the Bristol Civil Justice Centre when I am in a court room on the 4th floor and we can’t use the lifts. Lifts that are out of order or difficult to access in older buildings are sadly common. Parking at many courts is just non existent and this worries me as I get older and long train journeys become less appealing.
I have had to embrace paperless working a bit sooner than I would have liked thanks to Covid 19 and so at least I can say good bye to the heavy rucksack or wheely bag that made these challenges even more unpleasant. Technology and its more widespread use will definitely improve the lot for many disabled people.
I think most disabled people will agree that our biggest challenge is not so much our disability but the reactions of others. I do think there has been a positive shift since I was born, but clearly we have a way to go yet. I was disappointed to see a recent Bar Council event lwhich talked about when barristers should reveal their disability – I can only assume that this referred to mental health conditions. Those of us who have physical disabilities rarely have the option of keeping them a secret. We need to continue to promote an environment of open and honest discussion about the impact of our disability and what can be done to improve our chances of participation. I hope blog posts like this can be part of that.
Sarah Phillimore was called to the Bar in 1994 and now works at St John's Chambers in Bristol practising in family law. Since 2014 she has run the Child Protection Resource website www.chilldprotectionresource.online which aims to provide up to date commentary and resources for everyone involved in the child protection system.