Disability law will put business in the dock

The DDA is aimed at getting fair treatment for the disabled. How quickly it has an impact on service remains to be seen.

From next Monday it will be illegal to refuse to serve someone in a shop because they are disabled.

It will be discriminatory to ask somebody with a facial disfigurement to sit in the dark corner of a bar or restaurant because they might “put other diners off their food”. Bar owners will no longer be legally allowed to exclude somebody with cerebral palsy because they slur their order. Zoo owners, like the one on the Isle of Wight who refused entry to four people in wheelchairs on the grounds that they “would frighten the tigers”, can now be prosecuted. It will be an offence to discriminate against a potential employee on the grounds of their disability.

In essence, disabled people will, for the first time in the UK, have the legal protection not to be discriminated against under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 when it comes into force on December 2. But, until Sunday, it is legal to discriminate.

The Disabled Persons (Employment) Act, in place since 1944, provided none of these protections. It established an employment quota system which employers ignored. There were very few successful prosecutions in 50 years, whereas the DDA is expected to trigger a string of high-profile county court, and industrial tribunal, cases in the next 12 months.

Some disability groups are planning to target specific companies they believe to be guilty of discrimination or hypocritical in their public utterances and practices. Some sources suggest that Government departments will also be targeted to maximise political impact. These groups already have legal support from solicitors and barristers prepared to work on payment-by-results to establish precedents.

“The Race Relations Act has been in place for 20 years but it is only in the past five that it has been really used and we have seen legal cases. The DDA will have a more immediate impact,” predicts Trish Embley, employment lawyer at law firm Eversheds. “In the employment sphere there are solicitors and barristers set up to fight disability discrimination cases.

“Disabled people will be able to sue and seek compensation for discrimination but the real danger for most organisations will be the bad PR or press coverage.”

There is a potentially rich seam of claims if, as some disability experts believe, many businesses are unprepared for the changes both in terms of their employment practices and customer service.

“Most companies still have their heads in the sand and will wake up with a jolt,” says Stephen Duckworth, chief executive of the management and training company Disability Matters. “Businesses need to be aware that there is the potential for some disability groups to target specific companies which they believe are discriminating or hypocritical.”

Disability Matters provides advice and training for companies on disability issues. “The Government has spent 1.5m promoting the Act but it will only be after the first time The Sun or another newspaper reveals a discrimination case that most companies will take any notice,” predicts Duckworth. He argues that the spending power of the estimated 6 million people registered as disabled, some 30bn, should provide a further incentive for companies to comply with the DDA.

The Employers Forum on Disability claims that its members, including British Gas, Midland Bank and C&A, are prepared for the changes. But because much of the legislation is open to interpretation companies will have not only to meet the basic requirements but also err on the side of caution until precedents have been set. The Forum is launching a phone line with British Gas to advise companies on the DDA.

“The Employers’ Forum surveyed its members in 1994,” says a spokeswoman, “and found that they wanted legislation that made it easier to treat disabled people in terms of equal opportunities as they do for race and gender. It gives disabled people legal rights in the workplace – but whether it goes far enough is a different question.”

The changes will be staggered over the next ten years. The immediate change for everybody, including retailers, brewers and any other business that deals directly with consumers, will be the need to review service procedures.

The Act will impinge on service in three ways – making it illegal to refuse to provide a service to a disabled person, offer a lesser form of service or to provide a service but on different terms – for instance charging extra. It also sanctions the creation of a National Disability Council to act as a watchdog, although it has no power to bring, or finance, prosecutions.

Companies will be expected to develop disability policies within the next two years, although they have ten years to make structural changes to improve access.

Under the Act, companies employing more than 20 people are required to make any “reasonable” adjustment to ensure that a disabled employee or job applicant is not at a disadvantage. But what is reasonable? The Act is littered with ambiguities – including an elaborate definition of disability which extends, for instance, to people in remission from cancer – which is another reason to expect legal challenges within months.

Companies have no option but to meet what are at the moment very limited DDA requirements. Businesses now have to treat disabled consumers as they would treat any others.

In these days of customer service it sounds simple. But in the real world it can only be a matter of time before a company finds itself in court accused of discrimination.

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