Disability and career progression – Katia Ramo

This article was published first in The Lawyer on 15 March 2019. It is re- published with permission from Katherine Ramo and CMS. Our thanks go to Katherine for her support for our conference workshops where we discussed career progression for disabled people in the legal profession.

Women Against Adversity: from PTSD after an Afghan tour of duty to City law with CMS CMS tech associate Katherine (Katia) Ramo: “At the most vulnerable time, I changed not only my career but my whole environment.” 15 March 2019.

In 2005, in Washington DC as I read Mary Oliver’s poem Wild Geese, these lines stuck with me:

“Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting — over and over announcing your place in the family of things.”

As much as the poem’s imagery was uplifting, I was numb. I did not want the life I found myself in. It was frightening. A life I did not know and could neither fathom nor comprehend. The inner voice I heard told me: What world? What place? What family of things? I was reeling from a slue of unrecoverable losses, or so it seemed given the succession of misfortunes I was experiencing. I was being treated from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and vision loss triggered by onset of traumatic incidents during a 14-month civilian tour of duty in Afghanistan. Top this with finalising divorce proceedings, accepting the end of a career and grieving the loss of many lives of close friends, colleagues and local staff that took place within a span of few weeks.

At the time of these life-altering changes, I was not a lawyer. I was a contracts, subcontracts and grants manager responsible for a portfolio of $100m for a high-profile international development project that aimed to rebuild Afghanistan’s economy. I accepted the assignment as a natural progression of a highly successful career in international development, working on international acquisition and assistance projects in various sectors including investment and export promotion, financial services, environment, women in development, infrastructure, micro-lending and judicial reform. This involved working in Washington DC and in the field globally on behalf of the US State Department, USAID, the UN, the IMF, the World Bank, foreign governments, donor agencies and non-governmental organisations.

Coping and managing these changes took a herculean effort. I used music, poetry, art and mindfulness to mend mind and spirit. ‘Know thyself’ is a wise adage to live by. I knew that I had an active mind. I needed to give it a purpose, a raison d’etre in so far as not to dwell on the losses and look to the future even when at times there was none.

At the most vulnerable time, I changed not only my career but my whole environment. I moved from Washington DC to London on my own living a new set of terms of reference as a person with disabilities. I took an LLM in International Comparative Dispute Resolution at Queen Mary University of London. I did the GDL and LPC at the University of Law.

In 2010, while completing my legal studies and after few years of elusive debilitating symptoms, I had genetic DNA testing at Addenbrookes Hospital in Cambridge where I was diagnosed with a rare genetic condition called Stickler Syndrome which causes vision loss, hearing loss and affects the joints. It has no cure. How could one envisage recovering from this long string of losses, despair, grief and excruciating physical pain? Especially when in my case I did not even have a support structure of my family to turn to.

Whilst the diagnosis came as a relief since it offered an answer to a mystery, it was at a cost. Stickler Syndrome presented a new set of challenges in my life compounded by the impact of the credit crunch. I struggled with fears and doubts: Will I be able to find a training contract, train, qualify and practise? Stephen Hawking’s steadfastness fuelled my own. The law needs a sound analytical mind and as long as my mind functions, I will continue. I set my own resolution to succeed and vowed to disclose all my conditions in my training contract applications.

I trained and qualified with CMS as an energy lawyer and later changed my practice area. Currently, I practise as a transactional lawyer in technology, media and communications. I advise on corporate, commercial and telecommunication regulatory matters. I am also completing a PhD in International Law. The support on my way to qualification from the universities I attended, CMS as well as the Society of Visually Impaired Lawyers, BlindAid and select close friends, made a difference. In 2015, my life was even brightened when I was matched with my Guide Dog Cora, who became the First Free Dog in the City of London since 1237. She is a source of continuous vigorous joy.

Being re-engaged with life through the legal profession has become my homage to my friends and colleagues I lost in Afghanistan. It is a form of healing. Their work and sacrifices are always remembered and at the heart of my global diversity work especially for persons with disabilities. The legal profession gave birth to the advocate in me and heightened my sense of discernment to fight moral disengagement and the oppressive forces of discrimination and bigotry in any form. It gave me courage to became active in diversity, found and chair the CMS ENABLE Disability and Wellbeing Network, Co-Lead on Interlaw Disability Forum Enable (dis)Ability Network and be member of the United Nations Stakeholders Group on Persons with Disability.

It is the legal profession’s inherent pursuit of fairness and equality that gives us a special courage that makes us heroes of our own life stories, irrespective of circumstances, to speak up against inequities and inequality and to foster change whether in legislation, business practices or against archaic societal norms.

On International Women’s Day, in a year where we are celebrating the first 100 years of women in the legal profession and the United Nations is holding its High-level Political Forum (HLPF) to assess progress achieved so far since the adoption of the 2030 Agenda of the Sustainable Development Goals of September 2015, the dreams and hopes are abound to see more fair representation of women in leadership positions and with equal pay.

On a personal note, I humbly share few things with Dr Ivy Williams, the first woman to be called to the English bar in 1922 after the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 came into force. Dr Williams came to law as a mature woman and became disabled by losing her eyesight as an adult. These labels of being mature, disabled, and woman then and now clearly show they were never a deterrence for success. As such, I wish to see more meaningful change in the lives of lawyers with disabilities in relation to increased utilision of disabled talent in visible leadership roles especially in private practice and judiciary as well as enjoying better inclusion practices to ensure retention.

To sum it all up – we cannot choose the cards we are dealt but we can play them wisely by finding purpose within ourselves, looking beyond limitations, rising above bigotry and being of service. And that is how my wild geese of adversity helped me find my freedom, and, in the words of Stanley Kunitz, to

“live in the layers, not on the litter. Though I lack the art to decipher it, no doubt the next chapter in my book of transformations is already written. I am not done with my changes.”

Katherine (Katia) Ramo is a technology and media associate at CMS.