Advocating for change: disability and the law

By Andy Walsh

A football accident had a profound impact on graduate lawyer Matt Pierri; the Melbourne Law School graduate has long been an advocate for people with disabilities because of it.

Advocating for people with spinal cord injuries is a passion for Victoria’s 2016 Rhodes Scholarship recipient, Matt Pierri (JD, 2015).

His will to change the perception and treatment of persons with disabilities was born of his own experience of being left wheelchair-bound from a broken neck sustained playing schoolboy football when he was 15.

Rather than let his injuries dictate his life, Mr Pierri has used his experience to encourage a positive, open-minded approach to disability.

I think there are few moments in life where you really think about who and what are most important to you; for me, it was my family and friends.

“Beyond this, I learnt a lot about dealing with adversity and stress. I learnt to accept that I could not control everything that happened in my life, but I could control how I reacted to it.

“Ironically, through this trauma, I emerged a more resilient and positive person. I think this perspective has held me in good stead in the difficult times that have occasionally followed since.”

Mr Pierri completed a Bachelor of Arts in Media and Communications and Chinese language at the University of Melbourne before pursuing his Juris Doctor.

He says his interest in law grew from a desire to adopt the tools to drive social change on a large scale, and the realisation that “creating meaningful change required more than education and discussion alone.”

He believes the biggest issue faced by people with disabilities is how they are perceived by others.

“Traditionally, persons with disabilities have been seen as objects of charity, in need of fixing. This view largely reflects the perception, and corresponding treatment, of persons with disabilities by the medical community,” Matt says.

“This is further entrenched by the lack of familiarity with, and exposure to, disability that most people have had. Yet, while hangovers of this stereotype continue today, things are changing. We are moving towards an understanding of persons with disabilities as people to be respected and empowered.

The more that persons with disabilities can engage with society in a full and meaningful way, the faster these misconceptions will be dispelled. Both public policy and the law have important roles to play in facilitating this.

Mr Pierri believes the broader community has a critical role to play in redefining the social perception of people with disabilities.

Rather than lowering expectations of people because they have a disability, he says society needs to encourage and nurture their potential to the fullest extent possible.

As a Rhodes Scholar, Matt will undertake a Master of Public Policy at the University of Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government later this year.

The studies will allow him to fulfil his ambition to achieve social change at a systemic level.

“I’m passionate about advocacy for persons with disabilities because I understand, first-hand, how disempowering discrimination can be,” Matt says.

“Persons with disabilities are often marginalised by both the law and other public institutions, but many are unfortunately unable to do much in response.

“For me, it is really important that I use the skills, privilege and opportunities I have been given to advocate on behalf of those who otherwise cannot.”

For now, though, the 24-year-old is a graduate lawyer with King & Wood Mallesons’ dispute resolution team.

His transformation from student to lawyer was aided by what he says was the amazing cohort experience and education he received during his Melbourne JD.

“I’m so grateful for the lifelong friendships I’ve developed,” Mr Pierri says.

“Academically, it was amazing to be taught by so many of the brightest legal minds in their fields. I also enjoyed the array of public lectures that were always on.

“Looking back, however, my greatest highlights were actually the little things that I most enjoyed doing with my friends: sneaking in a lunchtime pizza at Kaprica; the delirious banter during latenight study (or stress) sessions in SWOTVAC; a cheeky dance at Law Ball or lying under the trees to avoid readings. This last one being a fairly regular occurrence.”

A role model student to his peers, this was proven when he was elected the Law Students’ Society President in his third year.

He says it was one of the most rewarding and challenging experiences of his life.

“I learnt a lot about myself, about leadership and about advocating for different interests on behalf of a diverse cohort. It was a fantastic privilege to be given such an important responsibility,” he says.

“By far, the most rewarding part of being on the LSS was seeing the tangible impact we had on the lives of so many law students, in everything from study to careers to socialising.

The greatest challenge was certainly keeping up with all the emails. Law students can be very opinionated at times (probably not surprising), and very keen to practise their advocacy skills at all hours of the day.

Taking on the role of president also gave him the opportunity to meet Sir Anthony Mason.

“It was incredible, and somewhat surreal, to sit down and speak with one of our greatest jurists,” Mr Pierri says.

The meeting marked the interaction between legal minds of different eras.

Matt believes a key concern for current and future lawyers is dealing with the increasing prevalence of mental health issues.

“The challenge lies in combatting two things. First, the occupational circumstances encouraging poor mental health, for example, unrealistic workloads, time-based billing, high-stress environments,” he says.

“Second, the stigma and misconceptions that continue to plague discussions around mental illness and anxiety. We cannot solve a problem that we still struggle to acknowledge openly and honestly.

“I think younger generations understand the threat of mental health issues better than older ones. We thus have both a great opportunity and responsibility to make a powerful impact in this area.”

With impressive young minds like his entering the profession, there is a feeling that the law, and some of these issues surrounding it, are in safe hands.

Banner image: Matt Pierri (JD, 2015)

Credit: Stuart Chen

This article originally appeared in MLS News, Issue 15, June 2016.