In April this year the law around ‘no win, no fee’ arrangements changed due to lobbying from the insurance industry around the so-called compensation culture. This has massively backfired onto the most vulnerable of society, and has made enforcing the Equality Act 2010 incredibly difficult. I wrote about this issue in August, but since then have heard almost nothing more about this problem. This is one of those subjects that should be making headlines, causing protests and marches, but instead the response has been limited.
Just to summarise: If a person with a disability wanted to bring a legal case against someone – for example a bank, for refusing to provide a ramp, or a university for failing to adhere to a request to provide course materials in braille for a blind student, they could have entered into a no win, no fee agreement with a specialist law firm. These agreements are backed with an insurance policy, and would mean if the case was lost, the insurance company would protect them from any fees, and if they won – all the costs were met by the losing side. However, the change to the law has meant even if the case is won, they cannot claim the costs of the insurance premium back.
It may be thought that it’s completely reasonable to pay the costs out of any compensation received – but damage payouts tend to be pretty low. In fact – most of the time it will mean having to pay out much more than any compensation amount they could ever hope to receive.
This means the following:
- Legal proceedings will be reserved for only the richest in society.
- Shops and service providers will be able to ignore the law, as no one will be able to afford to bring a case against them.
- It has vastly reduced the power of the Equality Act overnight.
- Legal cases bring change that help shape society to be accessible to people with disabilities.
Today Unity Law has launched the Equal Justice Report, which you can read here. Please do read it to find out the specifics of what needs changing, and the impact it will have. Here are two simple ways you can help:
- Write to your MP. Unity has provided a template letter within the report, but I have found not all MPs respond well to a template letter – so write how it may impact you or your loved ones.
- Create a buzz on social media – share the report on every platform you can, and tweet using the hashtag #equaljustice
People need to realise the impact this will have, and that will only happen if we all pull together to fight back against this terrible change in the law.
Credit to Mconnors
In Britain we have pretty good disability discrimination legislation. It’s quite extensive and covers physical access, employment and more. The Disability Discrimination Act came into force in 1995 – eighteen years ago. It’s been updated and strengthened multiple times since then – in 1996, 1999, 2004 before it finally ceased to exist and was instead included in much broader legislation called the Equality Act 2010. This included seven different protected characteristics which included disability, and states that if two people with protected characteristics have conflicting needs, then the disabled persons needs comes first.
However, I believe there are two particular flaws with this legislation – the first is getting companies, building owners and service providers to pay attention, fully comprehend and implement the law.
The second flaw is around enforcement. I will cover this issue in the post ‘Why we’re losing the war on Disability Access.’
Access Made Easy:
1) Access is generally about common sense. This includes putting a little thought behind decisions such as the layout of shop, and quite simply treating people with disabilities like you’d wish to be treated. For example – many shops have hearing loop systems, but don’t turn them on, fix them when they break, or train staff how to use the system. If you put a blue badge space outside your shop door – don’t use it for storage instead! If you’re installing a ramp to help wheelchair users and those with mobility problems, don’t put it at the back of the building. The closer it is, the better. The law states that it’s not enough just to have an adaptation – but to make sure that it’s usable.
2) Access doesn’t have to be expensive. The law asks for reasonable adjustments, and does make allowances for cost. It wouldn’t be expected that a small shop knock their entire shop down to replace it with a fully accessible one, or to install a permanent ramp. There are always ways to improve access though – such as a lightweight ramp that can be moved, a doorbell placed outside to allow people to call for help if needed, a portable hearing loop system, etc.
3) Never underestimate staff training. I have never had decent Equality and Diversity training, despite working for a range of councils, charities, universities and private businesses. It’s usually a patronising online module that tells you nothing about what it’s like to be disabled. There are lots of different kinds of disabilities out there and stereotypes attached to them. Some are harmful, some are just assumptions. Some I’ve heard just in the last week include:
• Wheelchair users cannot walk at all because their legs don’t work.
• AHDH is a fad, and is just naughty-child-syndrome.
• If someone is deaf just shout at them.
• If your child has Autism, then you should just be a parent and watch them at all times rather than expect their environment to be made safe.
• Only older people can have mobility problems.
Staff that have good training are going to lessen the chance of causing offensive, having complaints made about them – and more importantly increase the chances of meeting the needs of the customer and getting them to return again.
4) Accessible shops, or places with good customer service will get more custom. Disabled people have money to spend too. And to me – a shop that could easily make adjustments and hasn’t says to me “you are not welcome.” It’s mostly because the shops in the town centre I live in is so hard to get around I moved to mostly online shopping.
A cafe in the town centre that is inaccessible to wheelchair users
A few months ago I wanted to buy a gift for someone, and only had one day to buy it. My problem, however, was that my wheelchair was out of action. I checked online to make sure it was in stock, and headed to Homebase. The item I wanted was a plant – so I hoped if I could park outside the door, and go straight to the plant display nearest the door, I might just make it. However, I couldn’t see the plant – so I staggered over to customer service, already way past my walking limit. I explained to the lady I couldn’t stand long and couldn’t find what I wanted. She immediately brought a chair round to me without asking, then went to find the item, rang it up and called for someone to carry it out to my car for me. It seems simple, but it was so rare to be treated this way it actually brought tears to my eyes, which I know is pathetic! I wrote to thank Homebase and the lady in question and hope all their staff are like that. Next time I need to buy something gardening related – I’ll head to Homebase.
It’s important to note – most people will not complain about the step in the doorway, the packed displays, the till they can’t reach – they just won’t return.
5) New builds – get it right! While there is a certain level of understanding that it’s harder for older buildings, if you’re creating a new public building then please make an effort. The town I live in recently opened a massive shiny new art facility that cost £28 million. I was therefore incredibly disappointed they got some really basic things wrong. There was a whole list of issues – but a couple of the problems included a disabled toilet with an automatic light that turned off after a minute. So the person had to get off the toilet, and go outside into the corridor to turn it back on, or have fun in the total darkness. The second was the disabled parking was blocked off by locked bollards. In order to park, a wheelchair user had to pull up in the road, get their wheelchair out, head the 30m or so into the building, find a member of staff, wait for them to unlock it, go back to the car, put the wheelchair back, drive into the space, and get the wheelchair back out again. (For for many non-wheelchair users the distance was too far to reach the building from the road.) It’s very frustrating when such basic things are done so badly.
Finally: 6) It’s the law so just do it!
The staff in this shop ignored my attempts to gain access in my wheelchair. The manager later stated no one else had complained they couldn’t gain access. But how many people didn’t even try?
In terms of access, which simple changes would make your life easier?
For me, work is one of the most important areas to be running smoothly in my life. It costs me an enormous amount to work, but not in money – I pay in pain, energy levels, and stress. It means not being able to have trips out. It means if I have a family wedding I need to take not just the day off – but days surrounding it to recover. It means an extremely limited social life. And this means I want the payoff to be worth it.
I have had numerous issues in the work place over my disability which are often caused by a simple lack of understanding. Sometimes a lack of understanding of my illness, and sometimes quite simply of the law.
My first job was while I was at Sixth Form College, and it was at DFS, a sofa company. The job involved filling out the finance forms for customers after they had purchased a sofa and assisting customers by answering questions about the stock.
My back constantly hurt, and standing was the biggest culprit for causing even more pain. I took the job on the understanding that we were able to sit down when we weren’t serving a customer. Unfortunately, the manager had other ideas, and demanded we continually keep walking in circles around the store – even when there wasn’t a customer in sight. I have to describe the act of walking around with pain shooting across my back and down my legs, while surrounded by comfortable sofas, as something akin to torture. I was desperate for customers to come in, so I could snatch a few blissful moments on a sofa while I took their details.
I had absolutely no idea of my rights, and had never heard of the Disability Discrimination Act (now the Equality Act 2010). Not to mention I would never have dreamed of calling myself disabled at that age. I worried if I complained or was caught sitting down, I’d be fired. One day I was phoned to say they didn’t need any casual staff any more, but when I contacted the other staff – found I was the only one who had got this message. I assume in the end, the manager got fed up with me hobbling around, regularly collapsing into seat when I was unable to bare it any longer. Not that I could prove it.
My second job was at a tourist information office. It was fast paced, and my fellow colleagues were sympathetic, and took on the physical jobs, while I in return did more computer based work. But yet again I ran into trouble with my manager. I had told her about my pain condition, and learning from my previous mistake, had carefully detailed what I could and couldn’t do upfront in the interview and was thrilled to still get the job. Yet she couldn’t grasp why it was difficult for me to do certain jobs, and seemed to take an attitude I was just being lazy. She would purposefully pick me out to do physical jobs, while everyone seemed to look the other way.
After university, I was unemployed for some months. While the JobCentre agreed I could only work up to four days, with no standing, or heavy lifting, they began to get difficult about it. They sent me jobs for things I couldn’t do saying I had to apply for it, even if I physically couldn’t do it. One of the jobs was sorting Christmas mail at Royal Mail, another clearing a shop floor. I was told I had no choice but to apply, or I’d be sanctioned.
Job Centre Plus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I’d been sending out application after application with no response. I had even made an appointment with the Disability Adviser, hoping for some tailored advice, but instead just said “just continue with what you’re doing.” Some employers I applied for operated the Two Ticks scheme, which works around the basis that if someone ticks
they are disabled and they meet the essential job criteria – they have to offer them an interview, although having applied for a number of these jobs and not heard anything back at all, I’m not sure how it works in practice.
I do think this is a great idea however. I don’t believe it gives people with a disabilities an advantage, as some feel. Instead it’s the combat the very common attitude of employers dismissing disabled people right away – feeling they’ll be off sick a lot, or will be nothing but trouble. The scheme does not guarantee you a job, but allows one small barrier to be broken down and give the employer the opportunity to meet the applicant, and see their skills and work ethic before deciding whether to dismiss them or not. The Depressed Moose details some more issues with the Two Ticks Scheme here.
It’s also a very difficult decision whether to tick it or not. I applied for a job covering a maternity leave at a university and got an interview. In the interview I was asked whether or not I needed any adjustments, and I explained the restrictions. I was then offered the job, but in the conversation the head of the department asked what my disability was. I can’t remember what I said (I didn’t have the diagnosis then), but fatigue must have been mentioned, as her tone changed as she asked if I had “one of those chronic fatigue type things”. I said no, but fatigue comes into it. She then practically withdrew the job offer, saying she was worried I couldn’t do the job, and they had no time to find anyone else if I took it and then quit. I said I could do it, and she ended the phone call saying she needed to think about it.
What she did was very wrong. First of all she had no right to ask me what my disability was – other than as she had done before in regards to adjustments. She also had no right to withdraw the job offer purely based on my disability.
She rang back the next day and said the job offer was conditional on me seeing their occupational health, which was fair enough. I was cleared. It turned out her husband was severely disabled, and she was very understanding with me and was a good manager. But she could have faced legal action on the basis of her reaction. My line manager then went on to say I picked the job up quicker than anyone she’d ever seen, and was always commenting on how efficient I was, which they wouldn’t have seen if they’d chosen to allow a symptom of fatigue to cloud their decision.
Some parts of the job not mentioned in the job description got more difficult for me. It was advertised as an office job, but it actually involved a lot of physical activity. Most of the people in the office were understanding, and some took on a few minor tasks I couldn’t do. One junior manager took umbrage at this, and made the atmosphere unpleasant to the point of him ending up being disciplined for his behaviour towards me. The same junior manager also extremely offended someone visiting an office by declaring dyslexia didn’t exist, and people were simply lazy. It turned out the visitor had dyslexia and got very upset and explained that it was nothing to do with laziness, but processes in the brain, not that the manager took any notice.
Finally, I found an understanding manager in my third job, who is sadly leaving today and the charity I work for is being taken over by another one. My manager had previously lived with chronic pain herself, she understood sick leave, being able to only work on certain days and made allowances for me to work from home. This has led to some minor grumblings within the team, and the idea I was getting special treatment.
What I try and explain to people is that some people need additional help in order to be equal with everyone else. When someone is at a disadvantage, providing additional support isn’t favourable treatment, it’s helping them to reach the same level as everyone else.
Sadly, not everyone sees it that way.
It’s incredibly difficult to find an employer that will take people on with my multitudes of health problems. One bright side is that the Equality Act 2010 has given additional rights to disabled people that may help in some ways, such as not being able to carry out pre-employment medical questionnaires, or ask about a disability up front. Yet employers continue to do it. It’s also difficult to hide visible disabilities, like going into an interview with a walking stick.
The difficulties I have had make me worry even more for all the people being taken off Incapacity Benefit and assessed for Employment and Support Allowance, but instead being declared fit to work. Some even find themselves turned away at the JobCentre, as they’re declared not fit for work!
All I can suggest is keeping an eye on your rights, and fighting for them when you can.