November 16, 2020

The Disability Discrimination Act 25 years on – has it achieved its aims?

It is 25 years since the Disability Discrimination Act passed on 8th November 1995. The Act was an incredibly important piece of legislation to promote equality for disabled people, as for the first time it became unlawful for employers to discriminate against anyone on the basis that they were disabled.

From 1996, employers with over 15 members of staff were required to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to workplaces, in an effort to ensure that disabled employees were not unfairly disadvantaged in comparison to non-disabled workers. From 2004, this requirement was extended to all employers, regardless of size.

In England and Wales, it has since been replaced by the Equality Act, passed in 2010. The Equality Act intended to strengthen anti-discrimination laws and offered further rights for disabled workers, with increased protection from discrimination on the basis of a mental impairment.

How has employment changed for disabled people since the Act was made law?

Over the last 25 years, one of the main changes to the employment landscape is how much technology has now been embraced.

For disabled people who have experienced brain injury, related memory impairment is often a significant obstacle to employment. It is therefore important for them to have technology, such as tablets and mobile phones with reminder facilities and memory-aid applications, to address this. The fact that this is becoming readily available in the workplace is a positive step.

For example, advances in available technology have allowed RWK Goodman’s Compensation Protection Team to support clients with memory impairment taking on roles such as working in a kitchen, where they can use timers and alerts to keep on top of their workload.

A further ongoing complication resulting from brain injury is fatigue. This can be debilitating and often prevents employment in a full time role. It is also therefore positive that over the last 25 years there has been an increased acceptance of flexible and part-time working.

Working disabled people are far more likely to work part time, with 34.1% of people with a disability working part-time compared with 23.1% of non-disabled people. For our clients who have flexible working arrangements, we have found that flexible and part-time work allows them to manage their fatigue, whilst also being able to arrange work around medical appointments.

Another challenge that disabled employees face is the treatment of less visible disabilities. Whilst the Disability Discrimination Act focused particularly on supporting the physical nature of disabilities, such as introducing a requirement to make buildings accessible, it was less concerned with addressing the discrimination suffered by employees with mental health issues.

There is now much greater awareness of mental health issues in the workplace and the need to support employees with less visible disabilities, however getting recognition and support for the less visible side of a disability is often challenging. So there is still work to be done.

What are the next steps?

The Office of National Statistics reported that in 1998, 39.2% of disabled people were employed compared to 79.7% of non-disabled people (a difference of 40.7%). In 2019, around half (53.2%) of disabled people were employed, compared to 81.8% of non-disabled people (a difference of 28.6%).

Whilst the employment gap is reducing, it is clear that we are probably not where campaigners for the Disability Discrimination Act would have envisaged 25 years on.

There is still more to be done to achieve the ultimate aims of the Disability Act, and it will be interesting to see the impact of COVID-19 on the employment of disabled people. Whilst many are worried that the economic impact of the pandemic will make is harder for disabled people to gain employment, it is possible that the shift towards working from home and increased reliance on technology could have a positive impact overall.

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