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Lincoln Lawyer: Discriminating against disability at work

— James Hazel is the youngest partner at McKinnells Solicitors in Lincoln. He is the head of the employment and dispute resolution department.


On Sunday evening many of us will have sat and watched the Paralympic games closing ceremony, sad to see the end of an event that has changed many people’s perceptions on injury and disability. I personally felt inspired and uplifted by the Paralympic experience and think that it has challenged the ‘us and them’ attitude towards people who have disabilities that don’t conform to society’s norms.

The mindset of civilisation in years gone by was that individuals needed to adapt to their environments and that wheelchairs were the obstacles to participation, not steps and kerbs. However, as we moved into the 70s and 80s we began to see infrastructure being adapted to accommodate the needs of people with disabilities and encourage inclusion. There are now clear procedures and policies, ramps and electric doors to demonstrate this progression.

However, these physical alterations only take into account the bodily needs of those they intend to help. We may have automatic doors for people in wheelchairs, but how would we react to a co-worker on a cold windy day asking to have an outside door wedged open because their autism makes them fear being locked in? I wouldn’t want to be sat in the cold, would you? So would you refuse to help, or sit in shivering silence, afraid to be accused of discrimination?

One way that discrimination can occur within an employment context is harassment. Harassment is defined as “unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic, which has the purpose or effect of violating an individual’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that individual”.

So are you discriminating by refusing to allow someone to have a door open on a cold day, or are you being reasonable in the overall context of the entire building and the work environment?

Disability is an issue that people care a great deal about. As an employment solicitor then it is something I have to deal with on a regular basis. The Paralympic Games has certainly made everyone more aware and more understanding, but unfortunately, most employers are still unsure, perhaps afraid, of disability because they still don’t understand it or because they think it has major cost implications.

Not dealing with the issue effectively is just as disabling as the disability itself. Irrespective of disability, creating enabling environments for all employees is the way to drive business forward.