Businesses that fail disabled ‘risk legal woes’

Changes to the law that protects disabled people in Britain from discrimination could mean a raft of legal challenges for businesses this year…

Following an amendment to the Disability Discrimination Act late last year, employers, landlords and property managers are obliged to take steps to remove barriers to the workplace and provide welfare facilities for disabled workers.
This includes a wide-reaching extension to cover businesses' and the public sector's provision of services.

The broadening of provisions to services affects everyone from retailers to office managers and even e-commerce website operators, who were included in the amendments despite the fact the 1995 Act was drafted to apply to physical access.

The law now says organisations must make ‘reasonable adjustment’ to make their services more accessible to disabled people by removing, altering or helping them avoid barriers to access.

Where this is not possible, they should try to provide the service in a reasonable alternative way.

Previously, the law said firms could not refuse to serve a disabled person or provide a lower standard of service because of their disability, unless this could be ‘justified’.

Mitchell Winter, Managing Director of the specialist health & safety consultancy Winter & Company, says business leaders are unprepared for the changes the updates bring.

"The vast majority of employers do not fully appreciate the requirements under the Act, nor the consequences of non-conformity," he explains.

"The greatest problem of all is the lack of understanding of the needs of disabled persons on the part of employers occupying office premises".

Office users fall within two main categories, he explains.

"The first category is occupiers of entire buildings, whom to a large extent have full control over their premises. They are able to carry out adjustments far more effectively, as they have full control of the site, and do not necessarily have to obtain landlord consent, which in turn makes the whole process far easier to implement.

"The second category is that of multi-occupancy, namely where an employer is sharing a building with other tenants, with the common parts of the building being managed by the landlord or managing agent.”

One area of concern here, he explains, is deciding whether the landlord or the tenant is responsible for implementing reasonable adjustment

“In most leases the landlord is able to recover the cost associated with repairs through the service charge, i.e. the tenant pays a proportion of the cost relative to the percentage of accommodation occupied on a pro rata basis,” he adds.

"However, improvements to premises are a very different matter, in that improvements are often not covered within the existing service charge infrastructure and the landlord is not necessarily able to recover the cost of such improvements from the tenant.”

Facilities businesses are expected to incorporate under the new rules include: designated car parking bays, permanent or fixed ramps, accessible lifts and useable furniture and doors, the correct colour contrast on signs and notice boards for sight impaired persons and training staff in matters of disability etiquette.

"We expect a raft of cases to be presented to the courts during 2005 where businesses fall short of these obligations – and it’s sure to be a recipe for tension between landlords and tenants," Mr Winter concludes.

David Ruebain, a leading disability legal expert, agrees with Mr Winter. He says: “Generally I don’t think that employers are as aware as they could be about the implications of these new regulations. This issues need to be addressed promptly and effectively to avoid legal challenges.”

Another major feature of the law now is that for the first time people suffering from cancer, HIV and multiple sclerosis are classed as disabled from the time of diagnosis.

Until now, such conditions had to be visible for people to be protected from discrimination. This means that employers can’t act unfairly against staff with these conditions, which the government estimates cover at least 73,000 people.

The original Disability Discrimination Act, passed in 1995, aimed to redress the imbalance disabled people suffered, the government said.

It cites statistics that show one in seven in the UK population has some form of disability – nearly 10 million citizens.

And a recent study by the Disability Rights Commission found 80 percent of UK city centres offer barriers to disabled people, such as too many steps, heavy doors, and narrow entrances.

The government argues the changes it has made in the law are an essential part of its drive to support disabled people and give them full opportunities to improve their quality of life and be respected and included as equal members of society by 2025.

The government last month announced a new Office for Disability Issues for co-ordinating government work on disability and ensuring that this fits with the wider equalities agenda.