Considering that one in five people in the UK report having a disability, employees need to be aware of their legal protections and employers need to ensure they fulfil their duties. Moreover, statistics show that only half (53 per cent) of people with disabilities are employed, compared to 82 per cent of non-disabled people, and addressing disability discrimination in the workplace is a great first step towards tackling the employment gap and the inequality that stems from it.
The Equality Act 2010 not only protects those with disabilities from being discriminated against in the workplace, but also provides a more expansive definition of disabilities than people generally realise. This includes hidden disabilities such as mental health conditions or learning difficulties, as well as other conditions like cancer or HIV infection. This is important to note, as approximately 70 per cent of disabilities are invisible and so employers should be aware that these are correspondingly covered by the Act.
Moreover, the Equality Act offers protection against all the different types of discrimination that can arise in the workplace. This includes the most obvious type of direct discrimination when a disabled employee is treated less favourably because of their disability, as well as indirect discrimination – which occurs when a workplace has a provision, criterion or practice which is applied equally to a group of employees but puts those who have a disability at a particular disadvantage. Most importantly, the Act also addresses more subtle and harder to notice discriminatory behaviours, such as nicknames, inappropriate questions, unwanted jokes or gossip, which are often disguised as ‘banter,’ but are highly hurtful and distressful to the people affected.
The Equality Act also deals with ‘discrimination arising from disability’, which refers to instances where someone is treated unfavourably not because of the disability itself, but because of something connected to their disability. This can vary from absence from work because of an illness, problems with movement, or difficulties with reading, writing, talking, listening or understanding.
Given the extensive nature of the protections against disability discrimination, employers need to be aware of the responsibilities they have towards their disabled employees and honour them. Chief among these is the obligation to make reasonable adjustments to ensure that employees with a disability can carry out their roles, without being at a disadvantage. Whether this is installing ramps for wheelchair users or setting up standing desks for those with a spinal impairment, employers must adapt the working environment to remove or minimise the impact of the individual’s disability in the workplace.
Moreover, employers should promote a culture where everyone feels comfortable disclosing their disability, without fear that they will be prejudiced or seen as needing ‘special treatment.’ Every individual deserves to feel comfortable and accepted in their workplace and employers are bound by law to ensure all their workers are treated equally, with respect and consideration for their needs.
If you feel you are being treated differently due to a disability, you should act quickly as employees only have three months, less one day, from the date of the discriminatory act to start a complaint at an employment tribunal.
The pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on people with disabilities as their health and wellbeing has been more negatively affected compared to those without a disability. Thus, it is time we prioritise tackling disability discrimination in all its forms, and the workplace is a great place to start, considering we spend a significant amount of our time at work. Being disabled doesn’t change anyone’s rights as an employee and if you think you have been discriminated against, you can take action against it.
Neha Thethi is head of employment at Lime Solicitors