Your Guide to the Disability Discrimination Act

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The Disability Discrimination Act is a law that you certainly don’t want to ignore. It protects people with disabilities from intentional and deliberate unfair treatment, but is also there to protect against accidental unfair treatment.

Mistakes can happen, but it’s a business owner’s responsibility to ensure that they don’t. Knowing the key features of the Disability Discrimination Act will protect employees and customers, ensuring that nobody involved in your business will come under fire for discriminatory behaviour.

Where should the Disability Discrimination Act be adhered to?

The Disability Discrimination Act is in place to ensure that people with disabilities aren’t unfairly treated in any area of their life where there is an alternative. The law accepts that certain things can’t be helped – an old building can’t necessarily be modified to provide wheelchair access – but reasonable adaptations have to be made whenever they can be.

People with disabilities should be able to work, shop, travel and enjoy their leisure time without restriction, as long as it’s not unreasonable for physical modifications to be made, and should also feel that they’re treated respectfully and fairly by the people that they encounter in the workplace, at an educational facility or out and about in public.

Who does the Disability Discrimination Act protect?

Not all disabilities are the same, and each and every person with a disability will experience it in their own way. For that reason, it is especially important not to assume that someone isn’t disabled just because they can do things that you might not expect them to.

Some people with disabilities use a wheelchair permanently, and most able-bodied people will think of a wheelchair user as the most common image of disability, but some wheelchair users can walk short distances or might be able to walk on certain days. People with hearing impairment or sight impairment can be classed as having a disability, but so too can people with more ‘hidden’ disabilities such as joint issues and chronic pain, brain damage (including acquired brain damage caused by an injury or illness), epilepsy or a learning disability.

How important are ‘reasonable adjustments’?

Reasonable adjustments can be absolutely vital for people with disabilities, enabling them to fully participate as someone without a disability can.

From an employer’s perspective, not providing reasonable adjustments to accommodate the needs of someone with a disability can lead to legal action.

Reasonable adjustments might include:

  • Specific desks, seats or computer equipment.
  • Ramped access and elevators.
  • Large print copies of documents.
  • Extra breaks or flexible hours if medically required.
  • The same inclusion in activities such as team days, celebrations and parties, training days and conferences.

Adjustments might be considered to be unreasonable if they simply can’t be made due to the nature of a job or structure of the building, or if the costs involved in making those adjustments are overly prohibitive and would be likely to damage the business.

Be aware that funds and grants are sometimes available to help to cover the costs of reasonable adjustments.

What happens if you can’t make reasonable adjustments?

If you’re an employer or business owner then it is your duty to do your best to accommodate the needs of people with disabilities.

Nobody expects the owner of a Grade I listed building to change its structure for upper-floor wheelchair access, but more modern buildings should be built with wheelchairs in mind or should be later modified as required.

Shopkeepers can help wheelchair users by greeting them outside and taking items out to them, if a wheelchair won’t fit through the door. Also consider if you have another entrance, such as a staff entrance, that might provide more suitable access.

In most cases, if you can’t find the perfect solution, there is certainly going to be an acceptable one that’s better than doing nothing at all.

Are carers of people with disabilities also protected?

All employees with at least 26 weeks’ service under their belts can request flexible working hours. Parents and carers of a person with a disability can also request reasonable adjustments and flexible working hours to meet any of that person’s needs. Parents of children under five years of age might be entitled to unpaid parental leave, and this extends to cover parents of children with a disability if the child is under the age of eighteen.

How can the Disability Discrimination Act be used?

If someone feels that they’ve been treated unfairly, or that reasonable adjustments haven’t been made to ensure their equal participation, then the Disability Discrimination Act can be cited.

If the claim goes to court then it will be objectively decided whether the adjustments requested were going to be:

  • Reasonable
  • Effective
  • Affordable
  • Legal (some adjustments might lead to another law being broken)
  • Practical

If someone is found guilty of discrimination against a person with a disability then they can expect to pay damages to that person. The damages are typically compensation for financial loss, and figures can vary dramatically based on each individual case. Though there are no upper limits, usually cases result in damages of less than £5,000. Occasionally, figures upwards of £40,000 have been awarded to claimants.

Financial implications aren’t the only ones to expect if you’re found guilty of discrimination. Bear in mind that on top of any damages paid, you are likely to still be required to make the reasonable adjustments that will prevent a similar experience in future. If you have been found guilty of not providing access to your office for an employee that requires a wheelchair then you may need to install ramps or make doorways wider in addition to paying compensation.

In order to protect yourself from a discrimination claim, it’s vital that you have written policies in place. Also consider discrimination training, provided to anyone that will benefit from it (typically supervisors, managers and members of the HR team). Remember that you may be required to prove that you didn’t act in a discriminatory fashion – when necessary keep records and items of evidence, and always ensure that members of staff that are being offensive or discriminatory are properly dealt with. The actions of your employees will reflect on your business.

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