Reena Parmar, who has fibromyalgia and inflammatory arthritis, used to try her hardest to hide her disability at work. Because it is a less visible disability, it was easy to mask the challenges. But eventually, the senior knowledge lawyer at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, realised keeping this part of her hidden wasn’t sustainable.
Here, Parmar shares her experiences and explains why neurodiversity also needs more focus in the legal industry.
Tell us about your day-to-day as a lawyer and your disability—how does chronic pain impact what you do?
I identify as disabled and have my own less visible disabilities, which developed during my working career. I have fibromyalgia and inflammatory arthritis. These are fluctuating conditions that can impact my working life in different ways day to day. In particular, I have chronic pain and fatigue.
Inflammatory arthritis is a condition where an overactive immune system targets joints, which causes pain, swelling and stiffness in joints. For me, this condition particularly affects my hands, wrists, feet and back.
Fibromyalgia is a chronic condition that affects the way in which the central nervous system processes pain messages. It affects muscles, ligaments, and tendons. For me, this condition means that I have widespread pain all over my body, fatigue, muscle stiffness and spasms, difficulty sleeping and sometimes have problems with memory and concentration (called “fibro-fog”).
These conditions are not visible, but they can have a significant effect on me day to day. The severity of my symptoms fluctuates on a daily, and sometimes hourly, basis. These conditions mean that no two days are ever the same for me. My mental health fluctuates with these conditions too—some days I feel stronger, more resilient and better able to cope; and on other days my resilience falls, and it can be really hard to maintain a positive outlook.
At work, I try to avoid long stretches of back-to-back meetings, as I have to move around regularly in order to stop my muscles from seizing up. Sometimes the stiffness and pain in my hands and wrists means that I can’t type, so I have to use voice to text software to help me. Tasks can take me longer on days where I am feeling fatigued or in a fibro-fog, as it can be hard to concentrate and process information. On the days that fatigue hits me, sometimes the only option is to rest or take a nap—and that can mean having to reschedule meetings and calls at short notice.
Is disability an overlooked D&I metric?
Disability is definitely overlooked as a metric. Law firms need to submit their diversity data, including about disability, to the SRA—so they will try to collect this data. But there is a reluctance on the part of employees to share their disability data, often because disabled employees are concerned about negative assumptions that may be made about them and their ability to do their job, or due to a concern that if they share this information they will not be able to progress in the same way as non-disabled colleagues.
Disabled employees may be fearful around how that disability data may be used and who can access that data. Ultimately there needs to be a culture of trust within an organisation before people will share this private information. People that can mask their disability may well do so unless they are in an environment where they feel safe and supported. But building a culture of trust takes time and patience, and there is no quick-fix solution to this.
What barriers do you find you have faced (or still face) in your career owing to your disability? Does the fact it’s a less visible disability play a part?
At the start of my disability journey, I didn’t say very much about my health conditions at work. My HR team and managers knew and were incredibly supportive but I did not share the challenges that I experienced more widely, as it did not feel like I could bring those personal issues and challenges into the workplace—it didn’t feel professional. I was worried about the impact on my career progression and about assumptions that other people would make about me, and it felt like I had to keep the perception of perfection going at work.
I was able to mask my challenges, because my disabilities are non-visible. But I fast got to a point of feeling physically and mentally exhausted with keeping the “professional me” and the “personal me” separate at work—e.g. constantly coming up with new excuses for having to take time off for medical appointments every week, and then frantically trying to make up for that time after hours; spending hours and hours reading short documents because “fibro-fog” meant that my brain could not process the information I was reading; or having to cancel work meetings at short notice because of fatigue. At a certain point, I knew I could no longer perform at my best if I was keeping parts of myself hidden—it just wasn’t sustainable.
I first openly shared my disability journey at an International Day of Persons with Disabilities celebration event at Freshfields in 2020, because it dawned on me that we as an organisation could not become disability inclusive unless people were willing to start a dialogue about disability at work. I felt a responsibility to come forward and set a good example, but I was definitely worried about how this would land. I wasn’t sure whether this would help or harm my professional reputation at work. But the reaction from others just blew me away—so many people expressed an interest and offered their support. A number of colleagues then came forward to privately share their experience of disability with me, and I know that would not have happened if I had not shared my own story.
I can say with complete certainty that story telling has been transformative in terms of our disability journey as an organisation, because personal stories have impact. And being open was also transformative for me as a professional, as I now have the confidence to tell the truth when I am struggling with pain or fatigue, or when I have an appointment during the working day. My confidence has built to the point where I can genuinely be myself on good health days and bad health days, and I now know that there will be no judgment by my colleagues either way—but it has taken me a while to get to this point. While my disability journey hasn’t been easy, I have learnt so much along the way, and that has actually helped me perform my job to a higher level than pre-disability.
Is a greater focus on neurodiversity needed in the disability conversation going forward?
Yes. As a parent to children that are neurodivergent, this is something that I feel very passionate about. I worry a great deal about whether they will be accepted by society, whether they will be able to access the world of work, whether their unique perspectives and thought patterns will be celebrated, and ultimately whether they will thrive as adults.
Society and workplaces have traditionally assumed that there is only one form of human mind. It hasn’t traditionally been an area of focus for many law firms, and that needs to change. I think there is sometimes a perception that neurodiversity is too complicated, and so it has been pushed aside.
Are there enough role models for disabled lawyers? If not, how can the industry change this?
No, there are definitely not enough role models for disabled lawyers!
It is really important that we have authentic and visible role models at all levels of seniority in law, especially those with intersectional perspectives, to speak openly about their disability journey and their story. This can help break down stigmas that exist, to allow employees to feel safe in sharing the challenges, and to allow employees to have confidence that they will not be treated differently or prejudiced by sharing their challenges.
This is also important from a recruitment perspective, as in order for law firms to attract and develop a pipeline of junior disabled talent, firms need to demonstrate transparent pathways and opportunities for promotion and progression. Disabled lawyers need senior role models in order to have confidence that they can succeed in the profession. Role models also help to shift the narrative to what disabled lawyers can do, and their strengths, talents, and abilities, rather than what they can’t do.
Having a visible role model would definitely have helped me with feelings of acceptance, and it may have helped to combat my feelings of isolation and otherness in the early days of my disability.
However, role models in isolation are not enough to create a culture of inclusion—this is just one piece, although an important piece, of the puzzle. Organisations need to look at disability inclusion holistically, to identify any barriers.
For example, having role models is great, but what are you doing to nurture and retain that talent? How are you proactively helping to promote that talent to a position of leadership? Are you offering them mentoring and coaching? Are you having open and honest conversations with them about areas where your organisational approach to disability might improve and then acting upon that feedback? Are you monitoring whether disabled talent is within the talent pool that you recruit from, so that you have new role models coming up through the pipeline? If role models are leaving your organisation, are you probing why that is?