Disability Access in the Practice of Law – Begin Making Your Law Firms More Accessible for Disabled Employees and Clients with this Simple Checklist


Derek, a white man with blond hair, stands before a sunny window and wears a black suit and gray plaid tie over a white shirt.By Derek J. Dittmar

You may be unintentionally excluding a quarter of your clients and coworkers.

Twenty-six percent of adults living in the United States live with some sort of disability. However, fewer than one percent of American attorneys report having a disability, which can include sensory, physical, emotional, cognitive, and psychological conditions, many of which are not immediately perceivable by the public. It is unsurprising that most legal providers do not know how to make their services, offices, and products accessible to persons with disabilities (PWDs). When our profession is not conducted with a focus on accessibility for clients, and when we lack disabled coworkers to provide their lived and learned expertise, we are giving up, or greatly limiting, the chance to work for, and with, PWDs. Obviously, law schools have a vital role to play in expanding opportunities in the practice of law for PWDs, but that is the subject of a different post. Today, I am going to focus on why ensuring accessibility is both a legal and ethical obligation for attorneys and firms, in addition to simply being good business sense.

Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C.A. § 12182, prohibits disability discrimination in places of public accommodation. The act specifically includes the “office of an accountant or lawyer” in its list of private entities that are considered to be places of public accommodation. North Carolina’s Persons with Disabilities Protection Act, codified at N.C.G.S. § 168A-6, also prohibits discrimination from places of public accommodation. Given that the number of disability-related discrimination claims against private entities has exponentially grown over the past five years, any business that fails to account for accessibility is putting itself in substantial risk. It is also a violation of both state and federal law to refuse or fail to accommodate the accessibility needs of current or prospective employees with disabilities.

In addition to legal obligations, we owe an ethical obligation to ensure that our clients with disabilities are able to equally access and enjoy our services. Formal Ethics Opinion 500 from the American Bar Association explains that a lawyer’s communication obligations under Model Rules 1.4 and 1.1 are undiminished by a client’s non-cognitive disability. While the North Carolina State Bar has not yet adopted an ethics opinion regarding an ethical duty to accommodate clients or coworkers with disabilities, it did note in 2013 Formal Ethics Opinion 8 that when a firm learns that one of its attorneys experiences a mental impairment, it may be obligated to provide accommodations.

I am most often asked what “accessibility” really means. I reply that accessibility is simply the modification of processes, policies, places, and products to ensure that persons with disabilities can take equal advantage. After all, even the most expensive wheelchair in the world will struggle with steep and winding stairs, and the most advanced computer, armed with cutting edge accessibility software, will be stymied by websites built without accessibility in mind.

I offer the following recommendations as a starting place for those interested in making their law firms more accessible for employees and clients with disabilities:

  • When dedicating time and resources to diversity, equity, and inclusivity, make sure to include accessibility in your planning.
  • Whenever possible, make sure that you provide multiple methods of communication, including telephone, email, electronic fillable forms, and in-person contact. You should consider multiple means of communication for intake, employment applications, pro bono service, and any other area where you invite the public to contact you.
  • Ensure that your websites, social media, and blogs are accessible for persons with disabilities. Ask your web provider about their digital accessibility protocols and ensure that your users can leave convenient feedback. Whenever possible, engage a PWD to conduct testing of your web offerings.
  • Be intentional with your choice of words, particularly when replacing negative words with disabling conditions. Justice does not have to be “blind,” struggling clients do not need to “get back on their feet,” and attorneys who cannot or will not continue in the profession are not “disabled.” Unless requested otherwise, use person-first language.
  • Never touch accommodating technology or equipment without consent. This includes working animals.
  • Analyze your office space to determine whether physical accommodations may be needed, such as an alternate location, dim lights to decrease over sensitization, or the ability to produce large print.
  • Provide captions and transcripts for all videos that you and your firm produce. All podcasts should include a transcript as well. All digital photographs should include meaningful descriptions.
  • Familiarize yourself with your jurisdiction’s procedures for securing accommodations for clients, witnesses, and officers of the court. Also confirm how, and with what time limitations, to obtain synchronous sign language interpretation.
  • When purchasing new technology for your firm, ensure that it is accessible for current or future employees with disabilities. Work accessibility into every vendor contract.

It is our duty as officers of the court to ensure that everyone has access to justice, regardless of disability status. It is our further duty, as part of this vibrant and self-regulating profession, to ensure that we are welcoming, and accommodating, attorneys with disabilities. This Thursday, May 19, is Global Accessibility Awareness Day, and there is no better time to ensure that your firm, services, and facilities are accessible for PWDs. Thank you for reading, and for caring, and for working to ensure accessible legal resources and services for all.

Derek Dittmar is an attorney with the Raleigh office of Hedrick Gardner Kincheloe & Garofalo LLP who focusses his practice on complex civil defense, representing licensing boards, and consulting on disability access and accommodation. He earned his J.D. from Campbell Law School and his LL.M from Nottingham-Trent University in England. When he is not working, he enjoys craft beer, playing guitar, and spending time with his wife and dogs. Derek can be reached at [email protected].