November 2020 marks the twenty fifth anniversary of disability rights legislation in the U.K. It is a time to reflect on the fight for rights by disabled campaigners and others that finally resulted in the ground-breaking and much needed legislation. The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (which was enacted on 8 November 1995) and the subsequent Equality Act 2010, which brought all strands of anti-discrimination legislation together in one act, should be celebrated and in 2020 we most certainly need reasons to celebrate.
But what next? I don’t think anyone would say that twenty-five years on the U.K is a fully accessible place free from discrimination against disabled people. At the Business Disability Forum annual conference in October disabled people reported an increase in hate crime and feelings of powerlessness and loss of independence as the pandemic confined them to their homes. Social distancing and face mask wearing, to name but two features of 2020, have for example, removed hard fought for reasonable adjustments – physical assistance and lip reading.
There is hope on the horizon that the pandemic will be brought under control with a vaccine. So how do we ensure not only that the rights won twenty-five years ago are restored but that we build back better to eliminate disability discrimination for good? By looking forward to the next one, five and twenty-five years.
First, there is Brexit. The Equality Act is not protected legislation and so the U.K. Government can amend it from 2021. There has been a great deal of fear that the Government will take this opportunity to water down rights, but it has said not only that it will not remove rights, it will strengthen them. Now is the time to hold the Government to that promise and to demand improvements to the legislation.
Improvements that include allowing multiple discrimination claims to be brought. At present a young black man with a mental health condition can bring a discrimination claim for being young, a man or having a disability but not for all three. An older woman with sight loss can bring a claim for being older, a woman or disabled but not all three. This fails to recognise the complexities of being human. We are all more than one protected characteristic and the treatment we receive from employers and society reflects this. We aren’t discriminated against for being just one thing and so legislation that seeks to protect us from discrimination needs to be as sophisticated and complex as us and the society we now live in.
The Covid-19 crisis has also revealed the state of care in the U.K. Isn’t it time that the millions of unpaid carers who also work are recognised in our discrimination legislation? Although the Equality Act built on the Disability Discrimination Act and enshrined protection from direct discrimination for being associated with a disabled person it stopped short of allowing carers the right to reasonable adjustments because of their caring responsibilities for a disabled person. Employers know, however, that if they are to retain a valuable employee who is or finds themselves becoming a carer (it can be a gradual process) they will have to be flexible.
Our population is ageing which means more of us will acquire a disability during our lifetime. Cases of dementia for example, are increasing and many working age people will find themselves caring for older family members. A positive of the Covid-19 crisis is that many employers have learnt that it is possible to do a great many jobs remotely. Productivity can and is better measured by output and not by time spent in a particular workplace. So, if work is something that you do and not somewhere you go then why not allow carers the ability to request adjustments that allow them to work when and where they need to in order to balance work with their caring responsibilities – when it is reasonable to do so.
It’s not just about employment though. The disabled campaigners who chained themselves to buses to highlight inaccessible transport and then found themselves taken to inaccessible police vans, cells and courts made a powerful point. Yet transport to work or for leisure is still inaccessible for many disabled people. If society’s next challenge is to tackle climate change then let’s ensure that accessible and sustainable transport is part of the solution for all our sakes.
Bela Gor is Head of Legal at Business Disability Forum
Bela Gor is a lawyer with over 20 years’ experience of all aspects of disability discrimination law. Before joining Business Disability Forum, she represented disabled clients in some of the earliest cases under the then new Disability Discrimination Act 1995 to test the new law and has influenced development of the legislation. She continues to write and speak about how disability legislation is serving disabled people.