Disability equality law has come a long way since the advent of the first Disability Discrimination Act in 1995. And yet still, in 2013, the employment gap between disabled people and others is 30% – 46% versus 76% of non-disabled people.
We have moved from post war quotas of disabled people – around 2% of the workforce – taken on and largely employed in menial tasks – to fully fledged discrimination law, embodied within the Equality Act, giving disabled people absolute protection in terms of their employment rights.
To understand what rights and responsibilities exist, it’s worth reminding ourselves exactly what we mean by “disabled people”. We are not necessarily talking just about wheelchair users – less than 4% of disabled people permanently use a wheelchair. The Definition of Disability – part of the legislation – would offer coverage to:
People with a sensory impairment
People with a learning disability
People with a physical disability
People with mental ill health
People with facial disfigurements
People with cancer, AIDS or MS, from the point of diagnosis
…where their impairment has a long term effect on their day to day activities, excepting the last bullet.
We like to frame all of this within the Social Model of Disability – in other words, society – through physical, environmental and attitudinal barriers – disables us. If I use a wheelchair and I can’t enter a place of work because there is no level access, the building planners or owners are disabling me, not my impairment. If an employer refuses to take me on in a customer service role because I have a facial disfigurement, it’s the employer’s (illegal) attitude that’s disabling me, not my disfigurement.
So what responsibilities do we have as employers? If a potential recruit or an existing worker declares a disability, it’s incumbent on the employer to offer “reasonable adjustments” to ensure that the applicant has a level playing field and can fulfil the interview and, potentially, the job role without any barriers. This might range from, for example, special seating through to the employment of a PA to support me whilst I am at the workplace.
Employers should not fight shy of reasonable adjustments through reasons of cost. Most adjustments are reasonably inexpensive (and often cost free) and many will be accommodated by the Access to Work scheme – a Government fund that will financially support many adjustments – talk to your local Employment Service Job Centre about Access to Work.
What is reasonable can only ultimately be judged by an Employment Tribunal, but, generally, the test will be against the organisation’s resources and it will be rare that the implementation of an adjustment will be considered unreasonable.
Employers should consider adjustments at all stages of employment – from recruitment right through to retention and career progression. For example, if you are recruiting, don’t put unreasonable barriers in the way. Is a valid driving licence really required – that’s a requirement that’s often unnecessarily used. Remember also that pre-employment health questionnaires and discriminatory advertising are also now illegal and can expose your organisation to some very serious litigation risks. It’s perfectly OK to ask about adjustments for the purposes of an interview, but not to ask unwarranted questions about a potential recruit’s health condition.
Let’s move past recruitment and consider retention. How about the example of a man who drives a truck for a small haulage firm. He has been in this job for many years and knows the business well. After a diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease, he loses his driving licence. The owner of the business decided that he couldn’t afford to lose the heritage and knowledge of his worker and moved him to a desk based job. Thus the employee retained his job and the business kept his skills and knowledge. Here is a very practical example of a reasonable adjustment that benefits both the employee and the business.
That leads us on to the business case for diversity. If a firm opens its doors and makes disabled employees welcome, it is potentially capturing an additional 20% of talent – that’s the UK population that are disabled people. That argument holds for firms that provide services as well – they carry even more responsibility and have an anticipatory duty under the Equality Act. Thus, in terms of services, a business must have thought about making adjustments for disabled customers and implemented the same – even if the service is provided free of charge. Regardless of law though, it makes business sense to do this. In a world led by the likes of Trip Advisor, if a shop, for example, welcomes disabled customers; they will tell their friends and relatives about it. There’s a real edge to be had here, on both employment and service provision issues.
Disclaimer.. Any views or opinions presented in this blog are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the National Diversity Awards.
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