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Last Updated: Monday, 25 April 2005, 17:04 GMT 18:04 UK
Disability - employers' duty to respond
Geoff Adams-Spink
BBC News website disability affairs correspondent

A trade union has reported the AA to the Disability Rights Commission alleging it targeted disabled workers for redundancy when cutting jobs. But what does the law say about the issue?

Almost 80% of disabled people acquire an impairment after the age of 16 - so the way employers respond to a change of circumstances will have a lasting impact on a person's ability to stay economically independent.

AA patrol staff member

The law says that companies must make "reasonable adjustments" to meet the needs of a disabled member of staff.

Just how "reasonable" they have to be will depend on the cost of making alterations and the size of the business.

Even small firms - those employing fewer than 15 people - now come within the scope of disability legislation from October 1 last year.

An adjustment can be anything from providing equipment to enable someone to do their job, a physical change like widening a door, or it could mean altering work patterns to allow for longer breaks.

A person who develops repetitive strain injury (RSI) which results in severe pain in fingers, hands and arms, might be given voice recognition software so that they can use a computer without the mouse or keyboard.

If an office worker becomes a wheelchair user, their employer would have to look at whether their current office is accessible.

The furniture may have to be rearranged, a lift might need to be installed and an accessible toilet facility would be essential.

Although such alterations may be beyond the reach of smaller businesses, government help can be sought from Access to Work.

This is a fund that can be used to pay for special equipment, alterations to premises and the cost of a support worker.

Equal opportunity

In the case of the AA, it needs to make sure that its performance review of patrol staff does not target anyone because of their disability.

The GMB union alleges that 13 disabled workers risk losing their jobs in the current efficiency drive.

The organisation denies that it is targeting disabled employees as part of its review.

In a statement, it said: "Any employee with a disability has full access to a range of support and assistance which ensures they have adequate opportunity to carry out their duties to the best of their abilities."

Full assessment

An employer would be on extremely sticky ground if they decide a person is no longer able to do their job without considering all of the changes which could be made to keep them in work.

Richard Donald - the AA patrol man whose case has been highlighted by the GMB - was mindful of this when he said he did not want to be "a drain on the tax payer".

"I want to be allowed to earn a living and support my wife," he said.

Both government and opposition have expressed a desire to see a reduction in the numbers of people claiming the benefit.

The problem is that employers are often not sufficiently aware of how to retain staff once they become disabled.

According to the Disability Rights Commission, keeping workers on often has a beneficial effect on the rest of the staff, and makes them more likely to declare a condition when it develops.

Suffering in silence

People who fail to speak up about long term health conditions and impairments cannot be protected by the law.

An employer can only be said to discriminate when they are aware of someone's disability.

In 15 years' time half of us will be aged over 50, and a third of people between 50 and retirement age have a disability.

So this is an issue that will increasingly tax governments, businesses and employees' organisations.

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