Employers must learn to value the disabled

When the
Disability Discrimination Act was launched, the workplace was a key target and
the new law replaced a quota system that employers had ignored for decades.

The then
Tory Government was turning to the stick because it was clear that appealing to
the better nature of employers had failed.

Four years
on, no less a figure than Prime Minister Tony Blair is set to launch a new
initiative for the Disability Rights Commission. The new campaign will ask
employers to set an example by committing themselves to hitting targets to
reduce discrimination.

Is this
latest move a tacit admission that the Disability Discrimination Act has not
worked? The legislation has not led to a sea-change in how employers view the
disabled – a recent survey showed four out of five had never even heard of the
Act.

And the
case law that has emerged from the Act, and which has given headaches to many
personnel professionals, has not provided definitive answers to the fundamental
problems in the Act – the difficulty of deciding what is “reasonable”
discrimination and of defining who is disabled.

What can
be done? First, the law should be amended so that it is clear that employers
are only justified in discriminating against the disabled when the individual
cannot perform the essential functions of the job or is a health and safety
hazard. However, no legislation in this grey area is ever going to be a perfect
instrument.

Ultimately
it is up to good employers to lead a culture change in the workplace. The past
record of UK companies is poor, but the latest initiative offers an opportunity
to create a future where disabled people are included and valued – and that can
only be good for business.

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