Disability: Open and shut case?

There is more to meeting your DDA obligations than installing a ramp and a disabled toilet. Elspeth Grant explains how to get it right for your disabled employees.

Recent figures released by the Sector Skills Development Agency highlighted a low employment rate for disabled people: 40 per cent compared to 81 per cent for non-disabled.

With such a low percentage of disabled people in work, some would say changes to the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 that took effect on 1 October 2004 are long overdue.

One such change means that small businesses – with 15 employees or less – are now liable, along with larger businesses, for ‘reasonable accommodation’, which requires employers to make adjustments to assist disabled employees or applicants. The duty is to take steps as are ‘reasonable’ in all circumstances to change working arrangements or physical features of the premises if these put a disabled person at a substantial disadvantage in comparison with people who are not disabled.

The Act does not contain any guidance about the type of adjustments that might be needed, but sets out five matters to be considered when determining whether it is ‘reasonable’ for an employer to have to take a particular step. They are:

  • The extent to which taking the step would prevent disadvantage
  • The extent to which it is practical for the employer to take the step
  • The financial and other costs which would be incurred by the employer and the extent to which it would disrupt any of its activities
  • The extent of the employer’s financial and other resources
  • The availability to the employer of financial or other help towards costs.

Practical solutions

Commissioning an access audit is certainly a good starting point, and practical examples of areas where changes might help disabled employees include:

  • lifts
  • temporary or permanent ramps
  • handrails
  • locations of switches and sockets
  • alteration of door handles and taps
  • contrasting colours on walls, floors and staircases
  • accessible toilets
  • improved lighting
  • improved signage

It is not necessary for an organisation to undertake alterations to a building or other environment on the basis they might employ a disabled person in the future. To meet the needs of existing or potential employees, employers should undertake a full workplace assessment with a qualified assessor when a disabled person is employed, and carry out the alterations that are actually required to meet their working needs. In most cases this will be far more beneficial to all concerned.

The exception to this is when refurbishments are being completed, when all of the Act’s requirements should be considered.

When planning more specific requirements that are unique to the disabled employee’s particular needs, a qualified assessment is called for.

Specialist adjustments may include, for example, adjustable tables or chairs, orientation of furniture, task lighting, visual warnings, text phones, voice activated software, induction loops or accessible toilets.

Access audits, implemented and followed up with appropriate action plans and strategies for implementing improvements can produce results that benefit everyone. For example a recommendation to provide colour to assist with navigation round an X-shaped building, through the implementation of differing contrasting colours to donate different wings and floors of the building, was found to help everyone.

All too often inexperienced managers and companies make assumptions without communicating with employees.

A well-known UK company, in anticipation of the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA), decided it should make its lifts more usable for a staff member who used a wheelchair. It altered the lift cars, at considerable expense, so that duplicate control buttons were at seated height.

When the wheelchair user was shown how his needs had been anticipated he said: “I hope you didn’t do that just for me. I’ve been using the lifts for years with no problems,” and showed them the short stick he kept on his chair which he used to press the lift buttons.

This is a prime example of how firms waste money when implementing the DDA through lack of communication. Ask disabled people about their needs. Use close friends and colleagues to act as buddies.

All options should be reviewed before you spend money. It may be that a change in management processes or staff training will be more appropriate than costly structural alterations. In the workplace, send out questionnaires to all members of staff to discover their needs and remember to include everyone – not just people who you think might be disabled.

How to address your obligations under the DDA

  • Identify the current problems with accessibility (physical, attitudinal and practice)
  • Instigate a planning programme of improvement which follows, or will follow latest guidance (design and informational) from acknowledged sources
  • Undertake training of, at the very least, key front line staff, and identifying where good, independent advice can be obtained.

What is reasonable clearly differs according to the size and stature of the company, the difficulty with which barriers can be removed and the costs of doing so. However, by having an understanding and willingness to improve accessibility to employment, it is probable that employers will be considered to be meeting their obligations under the Act. Inactivity and a failure to even acknowledge the new legislation is unlikely to achieve the same view.

Employers can expect disabled employees to become increasingly assertive as they become more aware of their new rights. With no limit on the compensation that may be awarded to an employee by an employment tribunal for injury to feelings as a result of unlawful disability discrimination by an employer, all employers need to sit up and take notice.

Elspeth Grant is managing director of AAAconsult, specialist in the DDA

The Disability Discrimination Act

What does the Act cover?

The Act covers procedures, attitudes, and communications in addition to the physical attributes of buildings and the workplace.

Who is covered by the Act?

There are 8.7 million people in the UK who have a long-term mental or physical impairment – these include people who have difficulties with:

  • eyesight, mobility
  • speech, hearing
  • dyslexia, manual dexterity
  • memory, perception
  • diabetes, HIV, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis
  • disfigurement, angina, myalgic encephalopathy (ME) – also known as chronic fatigue syndrome

The facts

The changes that took effect last October involved extension of the DDA to cover small businesses employing 15 or fewer people. The DDA prohibits employers from discriminating against a disabled person in the recruitment process, in their terms and conditions of employment in their chances for promotion, transfer, training or other benefits and against unfair dismissal, by treating them less well than other workers.

  • In most cases, the Act affects service providers and employers, but not landlords
  • Conducting access appraisals will reduce the risk of litigation for non-compliance
  • New buildings often do not comply – a ramp and a disabled toilet is not always enough
  • Compliance is enforced through the courts and tribunals and there is no upper limit to compensation
  • The October 2004 deadline is extended to educational establishments in 2005

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