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Disability discrimination: Where are we now?

Disabled people continue to suffer from discrimination in many spheres, including on public transport, in the workplace and in wider society

Wheelchair uses face discrimination in many places
Fiona is an associate solicitor in the clinical negligence department.  You can follow her on twitter as @FEHuddleston
In the last 20 years there has been a material change in how disabled people are viewed not only by society but by the law; however discrimination continues to occur on numerous fronts.

Leigh Day’s Purple Workforce Report published last year revealed that there is still significant discrimination in the workplace but it doesn’t stop there. Disability discrimination is present all around us, from the wheelchair user who is unable to get on a bus to the autistic student who is prevented from attending seminars with his peers.

The first substantial step in legislating against disability discrimination was the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. However the act had inherent flaws, one of which being that there was no provision that directly prohibited indirect disability discrimination. However it paved the way for the Equality Act 2010 which greatly improved the legal landscape for disabled people. Unfortunately when the current Coalition Government came into power in 2010, the legislative progress was somewhat halted. 

Post Equality Act 2010

Leigh Day’s equality and discrimination team have successfully represented visually impaired people who rely on public transport. A number of our clients have been injured when falling from the platform edge onto the train tracks, which the team argued would have been prevented if tactile paving was in place at these stations. In these cases the Equality Act 2010 was used to argue that, the installation of tactile paving along the platform edge and better passenger assistance for visually impaired people should be provided as ‘reasonable adjustments’ under the Act.

The Equality Act 2010 was however put to the test in the case of Paulley v First Bus Group 2013. Mr Paulley is a wheelchair user who was unable to board a bus because the bus driver asked, but did not insist upon, a woman folding up her pushchair (containing her sleeping baby) to make room for his wheelchair. 

The bus driver acted in accordance with First Bus Group’s policy of “requesting but not requiring” non-disabled travellers to vacate the space if needed by a wheelchair user. The case was heard at Leeds County Court where the Judge held that First Bus Group had breached their duty to make reasonable adjustments and as such their policy was discriminatory under the Equality Act 2010. 

An appeal was made on the basis that such a requirement was unenforceable and not in the interests of disabled people and passengers in general. Unsurprisingly disability groups remain behind Mr Paulley.  

On 8 December 2014 Judgment was handed down; the Court of Appeal found against Doug Paulley and refused him permission to appeal at the Supreme Court. 

This blow to people with disabilities was exacerbated by the fact that on the very same day the High Court ruled that Mike Penning, former Minister for Disabled People, had not acted unlawfully in closing the Independent Living Fund (which supported disabled people so they could live in their communities rather than in residential care). 

The ILF seems to have reached the end of the road, with this government anyway.  Whilst the Court of Appeal’s Judgment in Paulley is a major setback in the fight to make public transport accessible for all disabled users, an appeal has been lodged directly to the Supreme Court and so all is not lost just yet. 

Whilst the law may have progressed there remain impenetrable barriers to people with disabilities, which are largely due to the prevalence of social attitudes. 

A survey released on 17 November 2014 by the Anti-Bullying Alliance indicates that 1 in 10 people use abusive language towards disabled people.  

The survey also revealed that primary school children with special educational needs are twice as likely to suffer from persistent bullying.  

The Purple Workforce Report showed that people with mental illness are particularly lacking in confidence in disclosing their condition when applying for jobs. This is not surprising given the particular stigma that continues to be attached to mental illness. Greater understanding of learning disabilities and mental illness is key to engendering a change in social attitudes towards the same.

We don’t have to look too far to find unacceptable social attitudes towards disabled people. 

In October, Welfare Reform Minister Lord Freud made comments, which seemed to suggest that some disabled people were not ‘worth’ the minimum wage. 

Although he subsequently apologised and David Cameron condemned his comments, the fact that the Welfare Reform Minister made these comments at a conservative party conference cast doubt in many people’s minds on the commitment of our Government to ensure that disabled people are treated fairly and given the same opportunities as non-disabled people.  

The true essence of the Government’s stance is perhaps best reflected in the benefit reforms and spending cuts brought in by Lord Freud and his colleagues, which have hit disabled people hardest.        

In order to see further progression in disability rights it is clear that social attitudes need to change, starting at the top. We need a government who will continue to push for disabled people to be treated fairly and be given the opportunities to succeed. Moreover we need a government who will undo the damage that has been done to disabled people by the current Coalition Government.

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