Would the real para-legals please stand up? | Disability, mental health & the law

Eloise Dibden is a fourth year law and international development student at University of Adelaide.  She is responsible for assisting the Student Representative Council with hosting its first Student Disabilities Working Group to discuss the issues facing students with disabilities and the ways in which the SRC can support them. Michael Bidwell, our Editor in Chief, reached out to Eloise to share her story and important message: #thatsokay

Would the real para-legals please stand up?

Disability, mental health & the law

When I was asked to write this article, I was equal parts enthusiasm and nerves. Somehow, even though I feel I am completely out of my depth, I hope to impart to you some insight in to what it may be like to be a young person with a disability, hoping to enter the legal world.  Disclaimer: I have cerebral palsy and have confronted mental health issues… and yes, unfortunately that is a pun in the title.

Being a lawyer (at least so I’ve been told) can be stressful, exhausting and downright hard work.  When you have a disability, all of these things can be amplified… That is of course assuming you have been given the opportunity.  Something that terrifies me as I head closer to the end of my degree, is that employers will never get to witness the skills, knowledge, and quite frankly sassy personality I have developed through my time in law school. Then, even if I am recognised, this does not mean that the work place suddenly becomes a fantastic hive of understanding, respect and support.

However, before any of that happens, I strongly advise you, and remind myself (because goodness knows I need to), to take a breath and look after yourself. I have found myself comparing and judging myself against others. I felt less than people posting on social media about their lives, work and relationships, because I wasn't up to the same ‘stage’ as them. Then, I realised something: there are no deadlines, or clocks ticking dictating your life. You can set your own pace with your own goals.

Take the time to get to know yourself, your strengths and limitations. These will be different for everyone and that is okay. Knowing yourself and what you can and maybe can’t do is a huge asset. You now know where you shine, and what to work on in the future. You now know when you might need to ask for help: it’s okay to ask for help. That goes for everyone. If you find you need assistance achieving something that’s okay. If you find you can do it alone, that’s okay too. What’s not okay is struggling unnecessarily in silence. What’s not okay are people telling you what you can and can’t do. Say something. The truth is, you need to be your own advocate. This can be a huge task – I have already found it overwhelming during school and university – but it will improve with persistent practice.

One of the biggest hurdles for me to get over (… I should probably say around… I certainly can’t jump over it) was my self-doubt. I believed no one would pick me, or hire me, or think I was worth the effort. I have changed this negative mindset, which has taken me years to really do properly, and now when I see an opportunity I think I may as well give it a go. If I do get selected then I will prove I was worth it. I will ask for the assistance I need. Those who reject me are clearly not the right fit. It’ll take a while, but eventually you may just find your people: your tribe that champions your vibe. Don’t settle for those who ‘overlook’ or dampen your flames.

Although I am speaking on behalf of individuals with disabilities, I can tell you why not creating an open and accepting workplace can be a detriment to all workers: you never know what will happen in the future. I’m not just talking physical difficulties, but also battles with mental health. Instilling a positive organisational culture, and not just on the visible surface, but underneath in the invisible behind-the-scenes day-to-day running, will promote and keep business strong. There are so many ingrained perceptions and assumptions that are still barriers to people gaining the meaningful employment they desire and deserve.

So, I challenge you today. Start a conversation with someone you know, a family member/work colleague/that person you always mean to get around to, but don’t. Ask them, genuinely (I’ll know if it’s not sincere), how they are, and be open and willing to share something of yourself. Too often I have found that by sharing something I have been through, it is only then others are willing to do the same. I know it’s tricky, and could be asking a lot, but if we don’t start communicating, we may never develop the compassion and understanding that is needed for everyone to be their best selves.

You are your own advocate, so take charge of that. Honestly, as corny as it sounds, be the change you want to see.

Start talking, and please let me know if there are any other topics you want me to discuss or experiences you want me to share!

Fingers crossed I’ll see you again,

Eloise Dibden 

If you would like to be interviewed or offer your thoughts on a recent event, book or article, please contact our Editor In Chief, Michael Bidwell, at mbidwell@mccullough.com.au