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Our Networking Group – IM Able

Today (Saturday 3 December) is International Day of Persons with Disabilities, which aims to raise awareness about the rights of disabled people and the daily struggles they can face, to promote a more inclusive and accessible society.

To celebrate this, I sat down with fellow members and co-chairs of our IM Able networking group, Anna Vroobel, medical negligence associate solicitor and Hannah Clifford, serious injury solicitor.

I wanted to find out more about their roles, their own experiences of living with a disability, and how their work makes such a difference to the clients and colleagues at Irwin Mitchell.

How would you describe IM Able to someone who isn’t aware of our networking group?

Hannah Clifford (HC): IM Able is a forum open to all our colleagues regardless of their disability, health condition, or caring responsibilities. It provides a space for colleagues to meet and share their thoughts and experiences. We have a wide range of people within the group, including people with lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, dyslexia, MS, PTSD, epilepsy, depression, people who’ve had amputations and people who are carers. We also welcome anyone who doesn’t have a disability or caring responsibilities, and they can join the network as allies.

What encouraged you to get involved with this group?

Anna Vroobel (AV): I was newly diagnosed with an autoimmune condition, and I had no knowledge about what support would be available at Irwin Mitchell. I was aware that there was an IM Able diversity group but found out it was inactive. I spoke to my line manager and was told that, co-incidentally and very fortuitously for me, the IM Able group was being relaunched and was looking for colleague involvement.

HC: In my third seat as a trainee, I had some difficulties making sure I had the right equipment. My line manager directed me to IM Able and I haven’t looked back since.

How long has the group been running for and how many members are there? 

AV: On a local level, IM Able has had a presence in some offices for over a decade. The national group launched in January 2019 with 15 members.

HC: When I first joined as a trainee in 2018 there were a handful of us in the Birmingham office. The group now has 50 members.

How important is it to have a group like this in the workplace? 

AV: We feel that it’s incredibly important to have a group like this, not only to support disabled colleagues but to raise awareness and understanding of disability more generally.

Can you tell me a bit more about what IM Able does and the group’s objectives?

HC: IM Able’s vision is for Irwin Mitchell to be a place where everyone can flourish, regardless of their disability, health condition or caring responsibilities. Our focus is to raise awareness and encourage people to speak about disabilities. We’re also focusing on enabling line managers, supervisors, and all of our community to better support current and future members of their teams. Overall, our goal is to champion positive conversations and action about disability.

Do you have some examples of the work you do on a day-to-day basis?

AV: Yes, loads – here are just a few:

  • We publish quarterly newsletters, covering topics such as hidden disabilities, pain conditions and autism awareness
  • We have a hub which has a wealth of resources and support tools for colleagues
  • We’ve recently joined the Sunflower campaign where people wearing lanyards indicate that the person either has a disability or they’re an ally
  • We’ve hosted sessions called ‘Lets Talk About Disability’ to allow our colleagues to share their experiences
  • We’re starting a new project where a selection of colleagues will be known as Disability Champions and will be trained to point people in the right direction for support.

How would you define disability? 

AV: There are a wide range of medical conditions which can be disabling. Conditions can affect both physical and mental health, they can be visible or 'invisible' and symptoms can be constant or fluctuating. Disabled colleagues may have been living with their health condition for a long time or they may be newly diagnosed and negotiating the impact of this. The same medical condition can affect different people in very different ways.

Can you tell us a little bit about your disability and what symptoms you have?

HC: I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis when I was 15. My symptoms vary but mostly include joint inflammation and fatigue. My fingers, wrists, shoulders, and elbows are the joints which have been damaged the most. I also have a low immune system. Earlier this year, I also experienced mild temporary hair loss because of an increase in my medication.

AV: When I entered the legal profession as a trainee solicitor, I didn’t have any health challenges. It wasn’t until I was 4 years post qualified that I became very unwell. After multiple hospital attendances, I was diagnosed with lupus. This is autoimmune condition where the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks health tissues and organs. It’s uncurable but can be managed with regular monitoring and medication. My symptoms vary. When I have a flare up, I can experience joint pain and severe fatigue, or I develop a facial rash.

HC: There have been days when my joints flare so much throughout the night that I cannot physically get out of bed in the morning. Or there are days when I can’t grip anything, or eat anything, because my jaw is so swollen. It’s an incredibly emotional to be in a situation where you feel like you can’t do anything. I have called my line manager on multiple occasions – in tears – about the fact I haven’t been able to work on the bad days. The help I’ve received has been incredible and my team have been totally supportive, which makes those days easier. I really can’t thank them enough for everything they’ve done.

What sort of challenges have you come across in the workplace? 

HC: This may be a sweeping statement, but I don’t think people always realise how much it can impact your life and the things you do every day when you have a condition or caring responsibility. For me, having a mostly hidden condition, it’s easy for people to forget that I may need help with certain tasks.

AV: I think as a society, we need to get better at recognising the existence of fluctuating medical conditions. It can be difficult for people to understand that I can be incredibly active one day and may need to rest the next day.

How has IM Able impacted Irwin Mitchell? 

AV: Since I’ve been involved in IM Able, I’ve seen rapid progress towards the goals of disability inclusivity and awareness. Members of IM Able have drafted resources and practical support for disabled colleagues, as well as line managers. We also regularly work with the teams reviewing the firm’s policies, managing the office environments, and upgrading the software systems to make sure that we’re being as inclusive as possible. We’ve made good progress in a short amount of time, but we know there’s still lots to do.

Do you have a key highlight from your time in IM Able? 

AV: For me, the launch of the IM Able intranet hub was significant. After any medical diagnosis, your world can completely change. At a time when you might be scared, worried and looking for guidance, having support and information readily available can be a huge weight off your shoulders.

If someone (with a disability or disabilities) was nervous about joining IM, what advice would you give them? 

AV: Firstly, it’s important to understand that nervousness is a completely valid emotion given the way that disability has been, and still is, treated within the legal profession. But Irwin Mitchell has been actively and vocally supportive of disability inclusion. If the person was still nervous, I’d invite them to speak to Hannah, myself, or a member of IM Able and we’d be happy to provide reassurance.

What kind of barriers have you experienced? 

HC: For me, growing up I felt embarrassed about my disability as I felt that it defined me. I also think there was a lack of understanding about what my condition was and what it meant for me. I have had people doubt me along the way, and there are many times I’ve doubted myself too. But I think having my condition has made me resilient, organised, compassionate and determined.

AV: I think the biggest barrier I experienced was the practical limitations of working from home prior to the pandemic. Moving to a remote-enable system was a game-changer for me. I can now work with ease and I’m much more productive as a result.

Has our flexible by choice policy helped you and fellow members of IM Able?

HC: Absolutely! To help manage my condition I do compressed hours. With my condition, I normally feel my worst in the mornings, so Icontact my manager to explain that I’ll log on later once my symptoms have improved.

AV: Without a shadow of a doubt. Managing my condition is all about working flexibly to pace myself, listening to my body and knowing when to rest. It’s been a huge benefit to me and many members of our networking group.

Finally, do you find that clients trust you more because you can relate to some of the challenges you’ve been through? 

HC: Definitely, particularly when you’re dealing with a client who might feel reluctant to discuss their situation with family and friends and may confide in us instead. Like many people with disabilities, my journey hasn’t been easy. When I was younger, I felt embarrassed. I didn’t want anyone to know about my disability. But as time went on, I came to realise that there was nothing to be ashamed of and I started speaking openly about my disability.  

AV: Absolutely. I can empathise when clients talk about symptoms such as pain and fatigue, but also when they discuss their concerns about having a new diagnosis or their ability to continue working. When you’ve been at that level of vulnerability yourself, you can relate on a very personal level and when people feel that you understand them, they open up more

Hannah and Anna were speaking as part of our Life at Irwin Mitchell campaign. You can find out more about it here