Shattering stigma: lawyer’s journey with hidden disability inspires change

Simon Maynard on the challenges faced by people working and living with a hidden disability

April marked Bowel Cancer Awareness Month, one of the many hidden disabilities often overlooked in the workplace. Here Simon Maynard, a disputes lawyer in London working as counsel at the international law firm King & Spalding, shares his experience with the illness.

Simon was named Lawyer of the Year at the Legal Business Awards 2022 and advocates for better inclusivity for disabled people in the City.

Simon, tell us more about your story.

I am a child of the 80s and aspired to become a lawyer from a young age. I managed to do well at school and secure a place at Cambridge University, but my life changed in the summer after my first year. I was diagnosed with a bowel condition which became a great source of shame for me at the time.

So much so that I kept the condition secret for the next 15 years, even from my closest friends and my now-civil partner. Instead, I continued with my studies and worked harder than ever to “compensate” for what, at the time, I felt was an unforgivable weakness. That all changed in December 2019 when I got a bowel cancer diagnosis.

What happened after the diagnosis?

The diagnosis was simultaneously devastating and liberating. I was only 35, had just started with King & Spalding, and my partner and I had only recently had our first child, Leo. I was in a fantastic place, both personally and professionally, and that was now under threat. At the same time, I was done hiding. I had to confront the situation and accept that I needed a major operation to cure the illness and ensure I could see my son grow up. I had my entire colon removed in the first few weeks of 2020 and was left with a permanent stoma, over which I wear an ostomy bag.

My friends, family and colleagues were so supportive. Still, coming out of that traumatic experience, it struck me how little disability, including long-term conditions, figures in the diversity discussion, certainly amongst those in the City.

Do you think there remains a stigma around cancer in the workplace?

There can be a stigma around disabilities generally, and cancer is no different. People sometimes assume that those with disabilities are somehow less productive or less robust. The opposite is true.

Look at the Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman, who maintained a gruelling fitness regime and filming schedule, all while continuing treatment. Or the BBC journalist Deborah James, who became a household name and inspired a nation with her positive can-do approach.

What has your personal experience been?

I’m fortunate to have made a full recovery, and, having lived with shame for so long, I am now intensely relaxed about my ostomy bag. But that is certainly not the same for everyone. Only three years ago, a man around my age chose to die rather than have surgery that would have left him with a stoma. And, of course, there can be many other physical side-effects to beating cancer: from hair loss from chemotherapy to the impact of surgeries like a mastectomy.

That is why it is encouraging that we are slowly beginning to see more disabled role models and representation in public life, from the recent issue of Vogue with disabled cover stars to the launch of a Barbie doll with Down’s syndrome. I was also impressed by the BBC Radio 1 broadcaster Adele Roberts, who was given the all-clear from bowel cancer less than a year ago, became the fastest woman to complete the London marathon with a stoma bag with a time of 3hrs 30mins 22secs. I completed a 5km run six weeks after removing my colon, which I thought was an achievement.

What can companies do to improve disability inclusion?

Three things. First, I’ve already talked about de-stigmatising disabilities, and I can’t stress that enough. Relatedly, no one should be concerned about asking for a reasonable adjustment, and there should be a straightforward process for doing so.

Second, we also need more disabled role models – not just on the occasional front cover of a magazine but every day in the workplace – leaders in their field who can inspire the next generation.

And third, we need to put disabilities on a level playing field with other protected characteristics. When companies talk about diversity, it is typically focused on gender and sexual and ethnic diversity. Those are important and worthy issues, but we should also ensure that disability is part of that conversation.

What have you been doing to improve disability awareness in the legal profession?

The first thing has been to share my story. I’ve been keen to show that being disabled and being a lawyer at the top of your game are not mutually exclusive. As a result, over the last few years, I’ve been approached by many exceptional lawyers who also have a disability, many of them still living in secret.  

I have also chaired an industry-wide task force for the International Chamber of Commerce focused on my area of practice – international disputes resolution – that will shortly publish proposals to increase disability inclusion. It will build on many things discussed in this interview, so watch this space!

What are the main challenges you have faced regarding your legal practice?

Frankly, I wouldn’t even speak of challenges but of how my experience has made me a better lawyer. I faced the fear of a cancer diagnosis, then worked full-time through chemotherapy. As a result, I’m more resilient but, simultaneously, more empathetic about the challenges other people may be facing.

What advice would you give a professional worried about a cancer diagnosis?

To some extent, that depends on your priorities. I was determined to keep my career on track, so I worked throughout my treatment. That won’t make sense for everyone. Work out what’s important to you, what you think you will be able to manage and what support you’ll need and communicate that clearly to your colleagues. And be optimistic – in my experience, at least, people are mostly kind and compassionate.

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