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Tuesday, 25 September, 2001, 14:06 GMT 15:06 UK
Disabled face 'shocking' discrimination
Disabled man in wheelchair
The disability rights watchdog is calling for new laws to prevent the "shocking extent" of discrimination against millions of disabled people in the UK.

Discrimination is far more widespread than previously thought, according to the first annual review of the Disability Rights Commission (DRC).

New rights for disabled people are due to be introduced by the government in 2004 but the DRC says reform is needed now.

Demand for DRC services has blasted original projections out of the water

Bert Massie, DRC
Commission spokesman Sue Pratt says the number of complaints about discrimination at work or as consumers had taken them by surprise.

"We expected to take 40,000 calls in the first year, but we have taken 50% more than that, many from people we can't help," she told BBC News Online.

Complaints range from problems at work to people in wheelchairs not being allowed into restaurants.

The Commission had expected to be dealing with about 200 cases of discrimination a year, but has been able to help over 2,000 cases.

Greater awareness

Ms Pratt said a lot of people did not understand that "disability" extended beyond wheelchair users to included people with mental health or sensory problems, diabetes or epilepsy, for example.

"A great deal needs to be done to tackle the amount of awareness and create a cultural shift in awareness," she said.

The Commission's chairman Bert Massie believes the figures revealed by the report was "only the tip of the iceberg".

He says 80% of the UK's employers do not have to abide by the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act because they employ fewer than 15 people.

He said the loophole must be addressed.

The new Disability Act would:

  • bring all employers under anti-discrimination laws - including small businesses

  • give protection to people with HIV and people with cancer from the point of diagnosis

  • bring public sector jobs such as the armed forces and police under the act.

    Mr Massie added that legal enforcement, conciliation and cooperation were key to the DRC's plan for a society in which disabled people were valued equally.

    "But these only work if they are backed by strong legislation," he said.

    The Commission wants new laws to be included in the next Queen's Speech at the latest.

    Business support

    The Commission was set up as an independent body last April to create a level playing field for the UK's 8.5 million disabled people.

    It aims to avoid court proceedings, preferring to concentrate on working with a service, retailer or employer to reach a remedy.

    The new proposals announced last year were welcomed as the most significant programme of reforms since disability rights legislation was first introduced 30 years ago.

    The police and the Federation of Small Businesses welcomed the law changes.

    But senior military officers attacked proposals within the Disability Discrimination Act for disabled people to be allowed to join the armed forces.

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