We talk to the City veteran that’s on a mission to make life more manageable for disabled people in London’s financial heartland…
Robert Hunter is a partner in a large international firm of London solicitors, specialising in helping victims of large-scale fraud cases recovering their assets. He is also profoundly deaf.
Here, he tells us what prompted him and colleagues Kate-Rees Doherty and Kayleigh Farmer to found City Disabilities – an organisation supporting disabled employees working in the Square Mile.
Can you tell us more about your condition?
I lip-read to some extent, but I’m not very good at it. My PA, Kayleigh Farmer, types out my calls and witnesses interviews and client meetings for me. I speak at a lot of conferences here and abroad, and she will present with me, typing out any questions that I’m asked. It’s a relationship that involves substantial mutual trust.
What were your main reasons for setting up City Disabilities?
I’ve been deaf since my early teens, but never wanted to emphasise it publicly, because I didn’t want people to regard my disability as my defining feature. In law, as with many professions, people tend to be conformist and regard something out of the ordinary as worthy of remark.
In 2014 I was asked to give a talk to the Law Society about what it was like to be deaf and work in a City law firm, which prompted me to think about the sort of things I’d encountered. Having done that, I decided to set up a charity to try to ease the lot of people with disabilities who want a City career. Our three objectives are to provide mentoring for people who are here already and who want to be here; speaking to employers; and more generally, raising awareness and improving the position of people with disabilities.
In terms attitudes to disability, what changes have you observed in the City over the course of your career?
Aside from the moral imperative, the City is now very conscious that appearing to be diverse and inclusive is cosmetically and commercially important. That’s led to substantial sums of money being invested in projecting organisations as friendly places for disabled people to work in, but the difficulty is that the people promoting that aren’t necessarily involved in regulating matters on the office floor. People can believe that because they publicise such policies, that’s all that needs to be done to ensure that said policies are effective.
What are the most pressing ways in which City culture needs to change?
The current issue is whether people should disclose their disability. People with visual impairments or mobility issues, for example, don’t have that option. People with hidden disabilities, such as dyslexia, deafness and other long-term conditions do, but research has shown that students and City employees often choose not to.
City firms and many of the disability consultants engaging with them will argue that they should disclose their disabilities – because if they did, they would see how their concerns that they would be treated differently are illusory. Yet the difficulty is that, just as nobody wants to think they’re a bad driver, no one wants to think that they are capable of being prejudiced against disabled people. In an ideal world, everybody should disclose their disability and everyone should be treated fairly, but we’re not there yet, unfortunately. We don’t want our idealism to stop us from giving honest and fair advice to people currently making that decision.
I have seen cases where people have been told not to tell a client of their disability. I have seen another where facilities required by disabled people were used as a bargaining chip for financial performance. I don’t want to sound downbeat, but we have to live in the world as it currently is. The battle is being won, but it’s not yet time to claim victory.