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Overcoming disability in the boardroom

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I love motorbikes, but riders are so vulnerable. I was a personal injury solicitor at Fletchers back in 1999 when I had the accident that severed my spinal cord. I’ve been a paraplegic wheelchair user ever since.

There was no question about getting back to work once I recovered. I felt restless, for one thing. My injuries, hospital and rehabilitation, a gradual return to health – the whole experience gave me a new kind of motivation and drive, and I was determined to make it count. Representing people who’ve been in similarly vulnerable positions, be it because of serious injury or even medical negligence, is incredibly rewarding. It’s not without its challenges, of course.

I’m fortunate really, because on the face of it at least, the fact that I use a wheelchair should not impact on either my ability to be a lawyer or to act as chief executive of a professional services organisation. In reality, however, there are sometimes physical practicalities that affect how I go about my role. I never knew how difficult it could be to find disabled parking spaces, for instance. And don’t you hate when the lift is broken and you have to take the stairs? 

Until January of last year our offices were split over three different heritage listed sites, so there were no lifts. All my meetings needed to be held on the ground floor because I couldn’t get upstairs, and being separated from the buzz of an active office environment was a real frustration. I try to lead by example, so spending time with colleagues is important. So now we’ve moved the whole organisation under one roof and I get to see every team member, every day. As head of a law firm, I think that’s unique. 

Accommodating disability is a challenge for businesses big and small. Being in a wheelchair often means it is difficult for our external partners to arrange corporate functions, as there are quite specific access requirements for wheelchair users. Being in a chair certainly elicits a range of responses from people, but I’ve found that when dealing with other professionals – especially the higher up the tree you go – the focus is still on the business at hand. The physical capabilities of the person in front of you are fundamentally irrelevant.

I’m a big believer in goals. I don’t think anyone survives in business without clear objectives, and I doubt I would have made it to partner or CEO without being able to talk about the future. That’s been a focus personally, too. In the early days after my accident, it helped to make plans with my family about things we would do together once I was well enough again. I was hugely motivated by personal achievements like going on a skiing trip, and of course riding a motorbike again.

There are some great charities in the UK that facilitate sport and leisure activities for people with spinal injury. Much of our work as solicitors continues after a case has been settled, connecting clients with the various organisations that can help to rebuild their lives. Supporting those organisations to continue their work feels fitting, so I’m always looking for opportunities to be involved, both as an individual and with the firm.

How a person recovers from serious injury has so much to do with the people around them. Not everyone has a ready support network, and having the understanding and encouragement of colleagues working specifically with injury and disability has been lucky really. Some people spend their entire lives as wheelchair users, and it doesn’t stop them for a second. How could I do less?

Ed Fletcher is chief executive at specialist serious injury and medical negligence law firm Fletchers Solicitors.

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