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Last Updated: Thursday, 5 October 2006, 11:59 GMT 12:59 UK
Disability law - who is covered?
By Geoff Adams-Spink
Age & disability correspondent, BBC News website

The BBC investigation into the workplace discrimination experienced by cancer patients has thrown the spotlight onto a recent legal change of which employers and employees both seem to be unaware.

The UK's disability rights legislation is governed by two acts of Parliament - one passed in 1995 and the more recent Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) that reached the statute books just before last year's general election.

One of the enhancements in the more recent legislation was to extend the protection to people with progressive conditions like cancer, multiple sclerosis and HIV/AIDS from the point of diagnosis.

Such people had previously been protected by law but only once their symptoms became apparent and affected their ability to work normally.

Campaigners were all too aware that unscrupulous employers were within their rights to dismiss someone who had been diagnosed with a serious illness because they anticipated a disrupted working pattern at some point in the future.

The law now forbids direct discrimination - in other words refusing to employ somebody because they are, for example, HIV positive.

The DDA also refers to employers having a duty to make "reasonable adjustments" to take account of a person's disability.

In the case of a physically disabled person, this would mean having to make the working environment accessible, providing accessible toilet facilities and ensuring that there were no barriers that would make their work more difficult because of their disability.

For people with sensory impairments, it might involve installing hearing loops, improving lighting, providing assistive technology like braille displays or screen magnification and employing a support worker to help the person to do their job.

Many of these "adjustments" can be funded by the government's Access to Work scheme.

The level of adjustment will depend on what a court would consider "reasonable": the larger the company, the more money they would be expected to spend.

People who have progressive health conditions will also require "reasonable adjustments".

This could include time off for hospital appointments, flexible working arrangements to help them to manage their condition, frequent rest breaks or changing things like office chairs to help overcome chronic pain.

Some employers seem to have been caught off guard by the new law which came into effect at the end of last year.

The confusion has perhaps increased because a group of people who may not describe themselves as "disabled" - especially if they are not experiencing symptoms - are now protected by disability rights legislation.


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