Legal industry discriminates against people with dyslexia

Monja Posthumus-Meyjes

People with reading and writing disabilities – dyslexia – struggle to find jobs in the legal industry because employers draft advertisements in a way that excludes them.

This is one of the key findings of a new study at Stellenbosch University (SU).

“People with dyslexia are routinely discriminated against in job advertisements for the legal industry. The wording in advertisements greatly impair or nullify their chances to obtain positions and indirectly exclude them from being considered for jobs,” says Monja Posthumus-Meyjes, an attorney at SU’s Law Clinic. She recently obtained her Master’s degree in Law from SU.

Ms Posthumus-Meyjes’ study addressed the exclusion of people with dyslexia who apply for jobs in the legal industry, and also evaluated whether such direct or indirect discrimination can be justified as an inherent job requirement and/or unjustifiable hardship to reasonably accommodate persons with dyslexia.

She analysed advertisements by some legal organisations in South Africa and also examined court cases that focused on whether inherent requirements of a job can be seen as a form of indirect discrimination.

As a person with dyslexia who had to overcome great challenges pertaining to writing, reading and finding employment, Ms Posthumus-Meyjes found that the wording in advertisements amount to indirect discrimination on the basis of disabilities and that indirect discrimination was not rational, fair or justifiable.

She says people with dyslexia are more likely not to get a job in the legal industry as their applications will probably be rejected because employers think they don’t meet the inherent requirements.

“If people with dyslexia applies for a position which requires ‘excellent reading and writing skills’, they would in all likelihood not be invited for an interview, solely on the basis of their disability.”

According to Ms Posthumus-Meyjes, employers are ignorant about people with disabilities and use certain policies, procedures, inherent job requirements as well as unjustifiable hardship as a justification for not appointing them.

“While it can be argued that the ability to read and write is an essential part of being an attorney, exceptional reading and writing skills cannot be argued to be an inherent requirement of the job, as it is an undefined and subjective criteria.”

Ms Posthumus-Meyjes says it has become a trend to draft advertisements in such a way as to benefit employers and to vindicate them from having to appoint persons with disabilities and/or to reasonably accommodate them.

She adds that this trend continues despite the fact that the constitution and the Employment Equity Act protect persons with disabilities against discrimination.

Ms Posthumus-Meyjes calls for advertisements that reflect the real inherent requirements of the job which are essential to the
job and not badly formulated ideas that are not important to the job.

“The only focus of the employer should be whether the applicant has the necessary qualifications, and then consider but for the disability, would this person with reasonable accommodation be able to perform the work,” she says.

Ms Posthumus-Meyjes says people with dyslexia and other disabilities are generally loyal and hardworking and, given the right working environment, can be productive employees.

“If a candidate is reasonably accommodated he or she will be able to efficiently perform and measure up to the inherent requirements of the job.”

She points out that there are ways in which the legal industry can accommodate people with dyslexia.

“People with dyslexia, de-
pending on their level of reading difficulty, can be accommodated by using dictation which is then transcribed by a secretary, or if they are required to do their own writing, special dyslexia fonts, special keyboards, or even computer software can assist them with the writing process.”

Ms Posthumus-Meyjes argues that these aids don’t have to be expensive and cannot be regarded as an unjustifiable hardship for employers.

She bemoans the fact that even though dyslexia can be regarded as a form of disability, there’s still a lot of stigma around it.

“The most common stigma is that persons with dyslexia cannot work in the white-collar sector and should be confined to blue-collar jobs.”

“The stigma can only be overcome by legally protecting and promoting access to jobs and focusing only on the question whether the person can do the essential parts of the job, albeit with reasonable accommodation,” adds Ms Posthumus-Meyjes.

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