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|TX: 03.09.04 - DDA DEVELOPMENT TRIBUNALS
PRESENTER: PETER WHITE
|THE ATTACHED TRANSCRIPT WAS TYPED FROM A RECORDING AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT. BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF MISHEARING AND THE DIFFICULTY IN SOME CASES OF IDENTIFYING INDIVIDUAL SPEAKERS, THE BBC CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS COMPLETE ACCURACY.
Now every year the Disability Rights Commission receives thousands of calls from people who feel they've been discriminated against by their employers because of their disability. Over the summer there have been two important legal cases which the Disability Rights Commission claims has strengthened the law and made it easier for people to seek redress when they feel it's been made impossible for them to work properly.
In the first case Susan Archibold was working as a road sweeper for a Scottish council when she became disabled, the council was ruled to have broken the law for not automatically transferring her to a clerical job. In the second Gaynor Meikle was a teacher in Nottingham when she began to lose her sight in 1993, she asked her employer - Nottinghamshire County Council - to make various adjustments but these were not carried out.
The enlarging I really needed because we had a daily bulletin that told me where I should be and what I should be doing - last minute things - and I couldn't read that because it was so small. Ironically when we got to the employment tribunal I discovered that the school had actually produced it in large form and then reduced it for members of staff, so they could have given me the enlarged one. All of this would cost such a small amount of money, I just don't know why it was never done. I needed extra light because I'm a textiles teacher and I couldn't do the work in the room and also he didn't give me a room with a plug in - this sounds silly I know - but there wasn't a socket that I could plug my closed circuit television into, so I couldn't use that. At the time I was doing a lot of exam work - I was taking three different GCSEs - that required a lot of course work marking, all the course work had to be handed in, in the spring, and it was dark when I got home at night and I asked if I could have some time off during the day - just an hour of non contact time - so I could do some of the marking then but they didn't feel they could do that for me either. From 1993 I struggled on, it got very difficult to do my work. My doctor had signed me off several times with headaches and he was getting quite concerned. I knew that if they didn't make these adjustments I wouldn't be able to continue teaching so I pressed them to make them. We had a meeting in - the May 2000 and I asked them again if they were going to make the adjustments and they let it be known that there was no way they could do it. And so I felt there was no way I could keep working, so unfortunately I had to leave a job that I really enjoyed.
I'm really sad it all happened, really sad. I always felt that sort of children would benefit from having a teacher who they saw as a perfectly able teacher then becoming disabled and managing to cope still with doing the job. Obviously my employer didn't. I really want to know why because I couldn't understand why and also it's such a terrible waste of council tax because as a teacher I could see lots of places where I work at the moment - in a school I supply in - where the money could be spent helping disabled children, teaching assistants and things like this and it must cost them much more than it's cost me.
Gaynor Meikle who has now won a case for constructive dismissal under the Disability Discrimination Act and that's the first time this has happened and this sets a precedent for future cases.
Joining me is Nick O'Brien, who's legal director of the Disability Rights Commission. What exactly does this case establish that is completely new Nick?
Well I think here we have the Court of Appeal and in the Mrs Archibald case that you mentioned, in the House of Lords making it very clear that the Disability Discrimination Act is effective and balanced legislation but it is legislation that poses a very real challenge to employers when they come to consider the retention of disabled employees. And what's distinctive about it is that it makes very clear that the disability law is different from the law on race and gender. The difference being that the disability law is not so much about trying to treat everybody the same but it's about trying to treat people differently in order to achieve fair outcomes.
But that seems extraordinary - reasonable accommodation - which is jargon I know, that's the idea of making sensible changes to allow for someone's disability - that was at the absolute centre of the Disability Discrimination Act, are you saying it's taken eight years for the courts to recognise that properly?
Well it's certainly the case that I think it's taken that amount of time for the - for all employers to understand what that means and for the courts to be given an opportunity to spell it out in such graphic terms. There have been many cases exploring what reasonable adjustment means but here we have, I think, the highest courts in the land making it very clear that this is a very broad duty, it goes to the heart of the legislation. And it is in the end about balance, it's about achieving the right sort of balance between rights and responsibilities.
So will this mean more employment cases being brought - brought particularly with the fact that as from October this will cover many smaller companies who've been excluded up till now?
Well I think what this does is give employers an opportunity to really get a firm grasp on what the law does mean and to realise it's not just about applying policies in a rigid way but it is about adopting flexible polices, allowing for difference and changing that sort of one size fits all mentality that can be such a pitfall.
But some research done recently suggested that actually the small employers didn't think much of the DDA and weren't very sure what it did or whether they were covered by it - that's going to cause a problem isn't it?
Well we're the DRC and others working in the field have been working very hard to try and educate small employers about what the law does mean, we recently produced a statutory code of practice that explores the law in great detail and provides practical example and education. And in the end many misconceptions do need to be dispelled. Research suggests that the cost of reasonable adjustments can be very low, typically less than a couple of hundred pounds, the cost of not obeying the law of course can be much higher.
Could be a few shocks in October though. Nick O'Brien thanks very much indeed.
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