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Annie Hayes

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Disability: Thought you knew everything there was to know?

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Business woman in wheelchair
Why shouldn’t someone without the use of their right hand become a barrister? Why can’t someone work in manufacturing because they are deaf? Mike Huss, senior employment law specialist at Peninsula employment law firm, a disabled person himself discusses the issues.


I have written a number of articles since 1996 when the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (DDA) came into force. This article aims to address recruitment and retention problems and dispel some of the myths regarding disabled employees. We publish this to coincide with a drive by the Disability Rights Commission, to whom we are grateful for helping in preparing this article, to encourage employers to both recruit and retain more disabled people.

For those of you with a few years clocked up you will remember the old green card registered disabled system whereby employers who did not employ at least 3% of registered disabled people within their workforce had to seek a license from the local (then) Department of Employment. This enabled them to recruit ‘normal’ people. In addition certain jobs were reserved for disabled persons – highly desirable jobs like lift operator and car park attendant!

The 3% figure was arrived at as a reflection of the percentage of the working population, armed forces and civilian, following the end of the Second World War. As time passed the disabled proportion dwindled as a result of the number of registered disabled people disappearing. It also diminished because of an increasing reluctance on the part of disabled people to register as disabled because of the stigma attached to it not only by employers but by disabled people themselves!

Of increasing concern throughout the 1980’s and into the 1990’s was an awareness of the discrimination faced by people, not only in employment, but also in the provision of goods and services. Hence the DDA 1995 covered not only employment but the provision of goods, facilities and services. Even if you are not directly effected by Part III of the Act you must have noticed, for example, how many shops, public access buildings etc have sprouted automatic doors and ramps.

The DDA swept away all the old provisions, registered disabled, reserved jobs, percentages and in-depth medical assessments and replaced them with a different, and broader definition of disability. It became an offence to discriminate against a disabled person (without sound reason), introduced penalties for so doing and extended the rules from the world of work to the whole world.

Indeed the definition of disability became:

“A physical or mental impairment which substantially and adversely affects daily life, long term.”

It does not contain any reference to work or a job!

Because someone is disabled it does not mean they cannot carry out a job of work. It depends on the disability and its severity in relationship to that job.

However, because of the large scale resistance to the employment, or continued employment of an employee becoming disabled, the Act does contain teeth. So why should you employ (not consider employing – employ!) disabled people? There are a number of reasons:

  • there are around 10 million, disabled adults of working age in Great Britain;


  • just 49% of disabled people of working age are in employment compared to 86% of non-disabled people (this costs a huge amount in “benefit support” and reduces the contribution made by NI, Income Tax etc thus increasing the burden on those in work); and


  • most people who become disabled do so during their working lives.



In addition you should employ disabled people because the studies consistently show that people with disabilities:

  • stay in jobs for longer;


  • have good punctuality records;


  • have stronger commitments to work;


  • have low absenteeism rates; and


  • someone who develops a disability on average costs around £500 – far cheaper than recruiting, employing and training a new starter.



With a shortage of skilled labour can employers afford to ignore five million potential applicants?

Of course, there are problems but they are small in relation to the problems they can remedy.

Problems start with arrangements for the interview. Deaf people may need an interpreter for example. This can be arranged for free and with little effort. An interpreter or assistant can even be provided for the induction and training period this is free too. If hearing the fire alarm is potentially a problem the alarm can be linked to make the lights flash. Grants and assistance are almost always available.

We have also been assisted in the preparation of this article by John Sparkes, Executive Director of Scope. An organisation that is responsible for a very comprehensive ‘Diversity Works’ programme to assist employers in employing disabled people. Sparkes comments:

“Building on our history as an essential service provider for people with Cerebral Palsy we are broadening our ambitions to enable disabled people to achieve equality.”

Some of the benefits he quotes include the importance of reflecting customer base (£80 million of spending power cannot be ignored) and that well managed diverse teams will out perform other teams by 15%.

“As part of our Diversity Works’ programme, Scope provides external support to other employers to help them employ disabled people, including the Fast Track graduate development scheme and Disability Equality Training,” he adds.

So getting someone may be a little more difficult but help is out there and they may contribute more once properly installed.

It is far more common then is commonly believed for existing employees to become in turn disabled during their working lives. Handling the transition to accommodate them can be expensive if managed incorrectly.

But inconsiderate treatment and arbitrary dismissal will not only, obviously, upset the individual, but sends a very clear message to the rest of your workforce of how little they are valued, that they can expect the same treatment if the same happens to them and wouldn’t it be a good idea to look elsewhere for employment. No ifs, no buts, that is what happens.

Free assistance through the Job Centre is available. They will evaluate what can be done to assist the individual to carry on in their role This is what is termed, “reasonable adjustment” and again grants to assist with the cost are almost always available. Even if they are not, consider this:

  • the cost of a special chair, manual handling device, “thingamabob”, etc. = £500


  • cost of pay in lieu of notice 10 years =10 weeks notice = £250 pw x 10 = £2,500.



Positive discrimination
Employers can positively discriminate on behalf of disabled people. The DDA has, besides allowing positive discrimination for some charitable and government sponsored jobs, made it unlawful for someone who is not disabled to complain if they are not chosen against a disabled person who is.

Many people favour positive discrimination seeing it as the only way to ensure fairness. Many others are against it, since to discriminate for one group is to automatically discriminate against another. What most disabled people want is a level playing field and a fair chance.

What is certain is if employers do not respond voluntarily then they will be made to. It is important, should you decide to follow a policy of positive discrimination, to ensure, through proper consultation with your workforce, that you carry them with you.

You might detect a degree of bias favouring disabled people throughout this article, you would be right. I am disabled on three counts and I am a senior manager at Peninsula. My name is not important, my message is. Look at the individual’s ability and utilise it … please.

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