The word ‘legislation’ has become a dirty word. It seems that it is the scourge of organisations and the impediment to entrepreneurship. Companies are busy doing it their own way, making an indelible stamp of uniqueness. We don’t need to be told how to do things- do we?
The disabled community sees things quite differently. Legislation is a lifeline. It enables people with disabilities to participate in a life that many of us take for granted. Whilst legislation tells organisations their obligations, standards provide the means whereby obligations are met. Together, legislation and standards provide the ‘why’ and ‘how’.
Many people with disabilities are feeling threatened. It seems that some organisations are keen to circumvent their obligations and government no longer has the appetite for enforcement. The evidence behind this statement is laid bare in a recent report by The House of Lords Select Committee on the Equality Act 2010 entitled The Equality Act 2010: the impact on disabled people (published on 24 March 2016). It makes for uneasy reading for the facilities management industry.
Baroness Deech, Chair of the Select Committee observed:
“Access to public buildings remains an unnecessary challenge to disabled people. Public authorities can easily side-step their legal obligations to disabled people, and recent changes in the courts have led to disabled people finding it harder to fight discrimination.”
The Equality Act 2010 supersedes the Disability Discrimination Act (1995) among others. Section 4 of the Act identifies nine “protected characteristics” to which it applies: age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation.
The Equality Act 2010 provides an obligation on public service providers to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ in certain circumstances. If a service provider has a provision which puts disabled persons at a substantial disadvantage compared to persons who are not disabled, a service provider must take reasonable steps to avoid the disadvantage. For the facilities manager the focus of attention is often on physical features. These could include, for example, ramps, parking areas, signage, floor covering, furniture and toilets or washing facilities.
So why should owners of shops, restaurants and public buildings concern themselves with accessibility? After all, few restaurant owners ever got a promotion for providing excellent disabled facilities. Legislation as it stands allows many organisations to avoid disabled provision despite the existence of the Equalities Act. The House of Lord’s Select Committee report heard evidence of problems in gaining reasonable adjustments from employers and education providers, and in shops, restaurants and hospitals. It was noted that pubs and restaurants sometimes used their disabled toilets as storage facilities while cleanliness was often a problem at sports venues.
Enforcement of disability legislation depends wholly on civil actions taken by disabled individuals. For disabled people the financial risks and emotional labour involved in such actions are invariably prohibitive. Conciliation is a less adversarial alternative. The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) previously had the power to arrange the provision of conciliation services for non-employment discrimination claims. This power however, was repealed in June 2013.
For unethical organisations, current disability legislation can be disregarded with impunity. For the disabled community, legislation currently provides scant protection. Fortunately there are many organisations out there that recognise the contribution that disabled employees can make. Furthermore there is a growing awareness of the ‘buying power’ of disabled customers. There are 12 million people in Britain with disabilities, with an estimated spending power of £200bn.
The Equality Act 2010: the impact on disabled people, House of Lords Select Committee on the Equality Act 2010 and Disability Report of Session 2015–16 (http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201516/ldselect/ldeqact/117/117.pdf)