The Government fails to get its act together on disability.
The Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) will become law before the end of the year, affecting almost every employer in the UK. Discrimination against disabled people in employment will be illegal. Employers of more than 20 staff have to make any reasonable adjustment to working conditions, or to the workplace, which might be necessary to overcome the practical effects of disability. All goods and service providers must offer 'reasonable' access to disabled customers.
This first major piece of legislation relating to disabled people for half a century has been welcomed by most forward looking employers. 'The DDA has a positive impact in highlighting the fact that many people with disabilities do have the necessary talents and skills to compete favourably in the job market,' says Carol Lawrance, human resources manager at ARCO Chemical Europe. 'It endorses the practice of equal opportunities amongst employers.'
But now that the Act is at the consultation stage, many are finding that it is something of a curate's egg. On the one hand, Jill Rothwell, director of personnel at Hertfordshire County Council, believes the definition of disability - a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial or long-term effect - is too narrow. 'The Act reinforces the belief that disability is a medical rather than a social issue,' she says. But most employers are naturally concerned about the effect of the Act upon themselves.
A Private Member's Bill was 'talked out' of the House of Commons in 1994 partly as a result of the Government's estimate that the cost of compliance to employers could total £17 billion. Today's concerns, however, are less about massive cost than about uncertainty. Research in the US, where the American Disabilities Act was passed in 1990, shows that 30% of 'reasonable accommodations' for disabled staff cost nothing, while 70% cost under £350.
Accepting that the DDA is 'a very significant piece of landmark legislation in the field of equal opportunities and one which has tremendous support,' Bob Mason, divisional personnel director at British Telecommunications, points out that 'there are worrying gaps in the Government's code of practice', which totals nine pages. Crucial questions like the definitions of 'reasonable adjustment' and 'justifiable discrimination' are simply not addressed.
The DDA makes no provision for an equivalent of the Commissions for Racial Equality or Equal Opportunities, and while a National Disability Council will brief the Government, employers have no access to consistent authoritative advice on what the Act means to them. Members of the Confederation of British Industry who were surveyed about what would make the DDA work put 'advice to business' at the top of their list.
Francis Keenan, the CBI's employment market adviser, is concerned at the absence of a mediation service, which means that any dispute will have to go to court. 'We want the legislation to work, but it will be difficult without a supporting framework.' The prospect of employers being dragged through the courts by disgruntled staff also disturbs Susan Scott-Parker, chief executive of the Employers' Forum on Disability. 'Organisations should work to the spirit of the legislation, focusing on good practice rather than compliance,' she argues.
Consultation on the DDA guidelines will end in April. Unless the government heeds the concerns of employers - and of disability groups - the main beneficiaries of this legislation may be the lawyers.