Dr Geoffrey Busby MBE FBCS CEng, adviser to the BCS on disability issues, discusses the law applying to employment of disabled people and the advantages of employing them.

From October 2004 it is unlawful for any employer to discriminate against a disabled person because of their disability. You cannot discriminate:

  • in the recruitment process;
  • in their terms and conditions of employment;
  • in chance for promotion, transfer,
  • training or other benefits;
  • by dismissing them unfairly;
  • by treating them less fairly than other workers;
  • by subjecting them to harassment.

What does 'discriminate' mean?

Discrimination can happen in the following ways:

  • direct discrimination;
  • failure to comply with the duty to make 'reasonable adjustments';
  • treating a disabled person less favourably;
  • harassing a disabled person;
  • victimising a disabled person.

Direct discrimination

The Act says that an employer's treatment of a disabled person amounts to direct discrimination if the treatment is:

(i) on the grounds of their disability;
(ii) less favourable than the way in which a person not having that particular disability is (or would be) treated.

Failure to comply with a duty to make reasonable adjustments

Employers have a duty to make reasonable adjustments for disabled job applicants or disabled staff when a provision, criteria or practice applied by the employer, or a physical feature of their premises, puts the disabled person at a substantial disadvantage.

Some examples of reasonable adjustments are:

  • altering the person's working hours;
  • acquiring special equipment or modifying existing equipment;
  • allowing absences during working hours for rehabilitation, assessment or treatment;
  • supplying additional training;
  • modifying instructions or reference manuals;
  • providing additional supervision and/or support;
  • making physical adjustments to premises.

There are good business reasons for employing disabled people. Research shows that:

  • The wider your net is cast when recruiting makes it more likely you will get the right person for the job.
  • Employers have found disabled employees stay in the job for longer, and have a strong commitment to work as well as good punctuality records and low absentee records.
  • Keeping an employee who becomes ill or disabled at work generally costs less than having to recruit and train someone new.
  • Employing disabled people can help increase the number of disabled customers using the service, and improve staff morale, since they will view the organisation as more representative and diverse.

In 2005 the DDA employment laws were extended to cover private clubs. This was a definite 'grey area' in exemption from the provisions of Part 3 DDA 1995. This now includes private members' clubs or associations with 25 or more members, imposing duties under Part 2 as employers, and Part 2 service providers.

Those now under the duties include golf clubs, to which applicants for membership are required to make a personal application, be sponsored by other members and undergo some form of selection process, such as voting by existing members.

Any lingering doubt that social clubs or leisure clubs may have been exempt is now clearly removed.

The business case for employing disabled people

Disabled people have abilities, skills and experience to use at work:

  • There are over 8.5 million disabled people in the UK, all of whom are potential customers.
  • It is estimated that disabled people spend around £40 billion a year on goods and services.
  • There are over 2 million disabled people in employment in the UK.
  • And there are well over a further 1 million disabled people who want jobs but are out of work. Many are skilled and with the same abilities as those who have jobs.
  • Disability is too often associated with wheelchairs, but only 5 per cent of disabled people use wheelchairs.
  • Disabled people are no more likely to be generally ill than their non-disabled colleagues.
  • The Employers' Forum on Disability quotes the average cost of adjustment for employers in the US as no more than £200. More importantly they have found that two-thirds of adjustments cost nothing.

The stories so far

Having established the business case for employing disabled people and enhancing that case with the statistics, it should be fairly obvious that any business, organisation or voluntary sector organisation ought to be inclusive of disabled people.

Having said that, chief executives and human resource directors need to choose the right person for the job without any fear of the law.

This however calls for the culture of inclusion, which in itself requires open and innovative minds. This article therefore should not have been required.

The IT industry however has not been quick to demonstrate any recognition of such thinking, even though it is probably one of the industries which stands to benefit most from the cognitive abilities of disabled people and other minority social groups by producing empowering products, which inevitably will increase the market potential and profits.

Having said that I must stress that the word 'empowerment' does not merely apply to people with disabilities; our industry increasingly has the opportunity to affect in a positive manner the world's social tapestry impacting on the Third World, education, health and social care, plus patterns of work.

As I write, the G8 nations are debating issues of global warming and how to eliminate this process, while the fragility of our national security is being highlighted by terrorist attacks on our capital city causing damage to the infrastructure, loss of life and business chaos. Although my title indicates a leaning towards disability, in fact it's about inclusions.

Any chief executive who is going to lead a successful company needs to recognise that organisations should become disability confident because:

  • Every employer needs to attract good applicants and be better able to employ individuals on the basis of their potential contribution to business success. Employers need to learn how not to be distracted by factors which have nothing to do with the person's capacity to do the job - factors such as race, gender or disability - and they need to learn how to make reasonable adjustments in a way which empowers as many as possible to make that contribution to business success.
  • Organisations need to understand the needs and expectations of 8.5 million disabled customers in the UK alone, their friends and families, and to enable them to access better-designed goods and services, and thus to spend more money. Given one in four people in the UK will be disabled or close to someone who is, this can only be good for brand reputation.
  • Organisations need to understand the communities in which they operate and to navigate in an increasingly competitive and complex environment, which now includes the global proliferation of anti-discrimination legislation and human rights legislation protecting disabled people as employees, consumers and citizens.
  • Organisations which are barrier-free for people with disabilities will be barrier-free for many others, particularly disadvantaged groups, and will be able to respond to the increasing pressure to improve the work/life balance.
  • Supervisors who are skilled in working with disabled employees will have a wider repertoire of skills and will in effect become better supervisors of everyone.
  • Public and private sector employers need to act to minimise the costs associated with keeping large numbers of disabled people unemployed. Those costs include the benefits system for the state and opportunity/human capital/tax burden costs to the private sector.
  • Removing the barriers for customers, attitudinal and physical, helps to remove barriers to employing disabled people.

Despite the title, therefore, this article is not intended to make employers think or worry about the Disability Discrimination Act, because they will have thought through that phase and will now be thinking globally without concerning themselves about the law.

It is to be hoped this is true of the leaders of the IT industry but if it is not true, perhaps it will instigate contemplation of many navels.