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Approximately 9 million of the world's 650 million disabled people live in the UK. According to a recent report of the Department of Works and Pensions, even though 3.6 million of the disabled, (i.e. approximately 40% of the total disabled population) are between 19 and 59, only about a million (i.e. less than 30 % of them) are employed. (Berthoud, 2006) Compared to the existing employment rate of 76% (Berthoud, 2006) among the non disabled population, the figures for the disabled are staggeringly low and pose serious questions about British society. Despite the UK being among the first nations to sign the recent United Nations Human Rights Convention for Disabled People, the number of British adults claiming out of work disability benefits grew from 1 million in the mid 1970s to 2.5 million in the mid 1990s; (Berthoud, 2006) an ironical fact and a telling commentary on the gap between public policy and actual practice. Discrimination in the workplace, as well as outside, continues to unfortunately exist in Britain despite extensive and progressive legislation to combat the phenomenon. Work and pensions minister Anne McGuire recently stated that “Britain's 10 million disabled people have had to endure a legacy of exclusion, inside and outside the workplace.” (Mulholland, 2005)
The last ten years have seen the progressive implementation of the requirements of the Disability Discrimination Act of 1995, and its enlargement in 2005, as well as the enactment of the Human Rights bill in 1998. The fact that these legislations, along with regular public debate and substantial research on the issue, have been accompanied by a significant increase in the number of unemployed disabled in the working age group (Berthoud, 2006) point to the existence of a social problem of significant dimensions, which whilst recognised, is far from resolution.
Discrimination arises primarily from prejudice; it is an emotional response to perceived threats and discomforts that cannot be rationally justified. (Lang, 1998) Discrimination against the disabled, at work and outside, social researchers feel, is primarily a social problem. (Lang, 1998) Entrenched in the thought processes and attitudes of society, it owes its origins to historical, social, cultural, and economic causes. (Lang, 1998) Whilst most people appear to agree that discrimination against the disabled is abhorrent and has no place in modern societies, its continuance leads to concerns, both about the sincerity of such adopted positions, as well as about effective measures to reduce and eliminate the problem.
The Disability Discrimination Act (DDA), 2005, defines disabled persons thus: “An adult or a child is disabled if he or she has a physical or mental impairment which has an adverse effect that is: substantial (not just trivial or minor); adverse; and long
term (lasting or expected to last for at least a year) on his ability to carry out normal day to day activities. People who have a disability within the definition are protected from
discrimination even if they have since recovered.” (Disability Discrimination Act - the rights of disabled people, 2007) Whilst disability can broadly be described as a condition
or function that is felt to be significantly impaired compared to the usual standard of an individual of the concerned group, the term often refers to individual functioning and includes physical, sensory, cognitive, and intellectual impairment, as well as mental ailments and certain types of chronic disease. (Disability Discrimination Act - the rights of disabled people, 2007) New provisions in the DDA (2005) have widened the definition of disabled persons to provide protection to people with cancer, AIDS, and multiple sclerosis, and removed the stipulation that mental illness must be clinically well recognised to be judged to be mental impairment. (Disability Discrimination Act - the rights of disabled people, 2007)
Although discrimination against disabled people has existed since historical times, the phenomenon has impacted pubic consciousness only during the last fifty years. (Barnes, 1991) The enactment of the Disabled Person's Employment bill in 1944, even though it occurred in response to the peace time needs of injured soldiers, marked the beginning of legislation on the issue. (Barnes, 1991) Whilst employment for the disabled, in the past, existed purely in the domain of charitable and voluntary organisations, the 1944 legislation made a concrete effort to tackle the problem by treating disabled persons as one group; it also addressed the question of their employment, provided a range of specialist services designed to find jobs for disabled
people, established a quota scheme, and institutionalised their legal rights to employment. (Barnes, 1991) Although the quota scheme made it mandatory for employers to fill at least 3% of their staff strength with disabled people, the initiative never really made progress because of lack of governmental commitment and the proclivity of employers to sidestep the provisions of the law. (Barnes, 1991) Confusion in policy making during the next few decades saw the introduction of various fuzzy and ill thought measures like inducements and subsidies to employers to take on disabled employees. (Barnes, 1991)
Whilst policy measures for improving employment chances of disabled people, up to the 1990s, focussed more on persuasion and inducement of employers, the passing of the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) in 1995 made it (a) illegal for employers to discriminate against disabled people in the course of filling vacancies, and (b) mandatory for them to provide certain conveniences to disabled staff. (Disability Discrimination Act - the rights of disabled people, 2007) Key rights of disabled persons under the act include the right to fair employment, the right to access goods, facilities and services provided to the public, the right to have reasonable adjustments made to premises or workstations by employers, the right to let or sell land or property, and the right to education in any school, college, or institute. (Disability Discrimination Act - the rights of disabled people, 2007) The enactment made acts of wilful discrimination, as evinced by treating disabled persons less favourably than others, (because of their disabilities), without reasonable justification, or failing to make reasonable adjustments for disabled persons without adequate reasons, illegal and liable for severe penalties.
The scope of the DDA (1995) was further enlarged by the DDA (2005), which added to the list of people covered under the scope of disabled, and included provisions that (a) made it unlawful for operators of transport vehicles to discriminate against disabled people, (b) made it easier for disabled people to rent property and for tenants to make disability-related adaptations (c) ensured that discrimination law covered all activities of public authorities, (d) protected disabled councillors against discrimination and (e) covered larger private members clubs and bodies that awarded general qualifications (like GCSEs and A Levels). (Disability Discrimination Act - the rights of disabled people, 2007)
The stipulations of DDA enactments reveal a strong shift from previous policies; whereas policy makers previously assumed that disabled people were significantly less effective than others in the workplace, and policies for improving employment prospects for the disabled depended upon persuasion and inducement of employers, current legislation accepts the fact that disabled people are subjected to unfair discrimination and exclusion by employers and service providers. They need to be treated equally, and their special requirements considered and provided for.
Whilst the 1995 and 2005 DDA enactments, even though falling short of compulsion, make it obligatory for all employers and service providers to ensure fairer treatment of disabled people, they also confirm the presence of intense and blatant intolerance and discrimination in the British workplace against disabled people. Nothing illustrates the extent of existing discrimination, rather oppression, in the workplace in the UK better than a report prepared by Deborah Cohen and Karen Hebert carried by the
British Medical Journal (2004) on discrimination against disabled doctors by members of their own fraternity.
“In a small qualitative study, disabled doctorsreported feeling isolated and stigmatised, and that there wasa lack of understanding and flexibility. Despite medicine beinga caring profession, medicine is not supportive or enabling,especially to those who do not conform to the normative perceivedstandard. One doctor with a disability said: ‘[You] would expecttolerance from doctors, but this is the worst group when dealingwith their own... most people don't want to know... medicinehas a `survival of the fittest' style.'” (Cohen and Hebert, 2004)
If medical professionals, who are under Hippocratic Oath and have made conscious career decisions to work in areas that require compassion and understanding, are apt to have discriminatory attitudes towards the disabled, such attitudes will obviously be much stronger in the common population. Discrimination, as is common knowledge, exhibits itself in a myriad ways, and is felt most sharply by the people who experience it. For many disabled people it starts from before they were born. The Society for Protection of Unborn Children (2007) states that prenatal screening tests that indicate disabling conditions in unborn babies often lead to pressure on mothers to abort the children. Human embryos conceived in test tubes are examined for disabling conditions and thrown away if found to have disabling conditions. Newborn babies, particularly those with conditions such as Down's syndrome and spina bifida, are sometimes sedated and starved to death. Denial of food and water to those in “Persistent Vegetative State” is common. (Fatal discrimination against disabled people, 2007)
The discrimination that evidences itself in the workplace is but an extension of various discriminatory practices that disabled people experience at school and in society as they grow up; these practices also often aggravate their condition and increase their discomfort in their working lives. An article in Socialist Review (1995) states that the majority of disabled people are in poorly paid jobs, and are far less likely to be employed compared to people without disabilities. Whilst both disabled men and women earn significantly less than others, their living costs tend to be significantly higher because of needs such as transport, clothing and facilities in the home. (Equal Access, 1995) It is estimated that two thirds of all disabled people live below the poverty line. Most disabled people earn far too little to buy their own houses. (Equal Access, 1995) Even though the article was published 10 years ago, current studies show little change in the situation on the ground. (Berthoud, 2006) The employment rate for disabled people continues to be much lower than that of people without disabilities, they earn less, and are far less likely to hold responsible positions. (Berthoud, 2006)
Theories to analyse and explain discriminatory attitudes depend upon different models and thought constructs, most of which have emerged in recent decades. Whilst discrimination against the disabled has existed since historical times, social researchers believe that discriminatory attitudes hardened with the advent of industrialisation and capitalism. (Lang, 1998) The industrial revolution and the rise of capitalism put an end to agrarian societies, created the need for able bodied men to work in factories, promoted the rise of individualism, and marginalised disabled people as ineffective and unprofitable components of society, who needed to be segregated and cared for, rather
than integrated in the productive working class. (Lang, 1998) Whilst this line of argument, though widely accepted, does not explain the presence of discriminatory attitudes towards disabled people in societies that remained non-industrialised and primarily agrarian until well into the 20th century, the sudden redundancy of people with impairments in the working classes during the industrial revolution led to the participation of the medical profession in the issue. (Lang, 1998) The involvement of medical professionals, who were called in to categorise the type of impairment, led to the medicalisation of society and to the emergence of the Medical Model, the use of which continues even today. (Lang, 1998) The medical model assumes that (a) disability is a diseased state, (b) it is essentially an unfortunate individual problem that occurs on a random basis, (c) it is the responsibility of the medical profession to treat disabled people (d) disabled people are biologically and psychologically inferior to those who are able-bodied, (e) disabled people or their families cannot take decisions about their lives, and that (f) the medical profession should play a dominant role in deciding upon their lives. (Lang, 1998)
Whilst discrimination against disabled people has existed from historical times and across societies, researchers feel that the issue was possibly aggravated immensely in the UK by the industrial revolution, the growth of capitalism and the dominance of the medical model. Social attitudes towards disabled people hardened during the 18th, 19th and much of the 20th century and developed into deep rooted prejudice, which evinced itself in various ways of discrimination and oppression, and led to the imposition of great difficulties on disabled people. (Lang, 1998) Thompson, in
2001, provided a PCS model that attempts to explain the complex nature in which inequalities, prejudice and discrimination operate to impact the lives of individuals, groups and communities. (Thompson, 2001) Thompson argues that three interlinked levels reinforce discrimination and oppression within society. These operate at the Personal, Cultural and Structural levels and mutually reinforce each other to create extensive and deep rooted biases against people. (Thompson, 2001) At the personal level this relates to individual views and can evidence itself through patronising behaviour towards the disabled, feelings of physical and intellectual superiority, and dislike for the different physical appearances of people with impairments. At the cultural level, people can share common beliefs, (accentuated by the dominance of the medical model) regarding the physical and psychological inferiority of disabled people, along with related feelings about their incapability in handling their lives, and the need to institutionalise and treat them separately. Structurally discrimination can evidence itself through a myriad of excluding and disempowering conditions like the preponderance of escalators rather than lifts at tube stations, the low representation of the disabled at the workplace, the lack of textbooks for blind people, the presence of separate schools for disabled children, and the widespread lack of facilities for disabled people at pubs, cinemas, amusement parks, airports, railway stations, and even polling booths.
Recent years have seen some change in these attitudes and led to the development of the Social Model, which, in contrast to the Medical Model argues that disabled individuals are as much part of mainstream society as able bodied individuals and social obstacles “like inaccessible buildings, unusable transport systems as well as
pejorative social attitudes, prejudice and institutionalised discrimination … are the real concerns of disability.” (Lang, 1998) Disability, in the social model is seen to arise from socio-cultural rather than biological causes; it is imposed on existing physical impairments through isolationist and excluding attitudes, behaviours, and policies and amounts to oppression. (Lang, 1998)
Whilst discrimination and oppression against disabled people in the workplace continues to occur, recent legislation aims to level the playing field by ensuring that employers and service providers do not adopt discriminatory attitudes towards the disabled, and apart from treating them at par with able bodied people take cognizance of their needs and provide for the same. The DDA enjoins employers and service providers, namely companies and organisations that provide goods, facilities, and services to the public, for example banks, hospitals, local authority services, cinemas, railway and bus stations, shops, hotels, restaurants, football grounds, public parks, and private education to make reasonable adjustments to cater to the needs of disabled people, and service users have the right to approach the legal and official machinery if such needs are not met.
Social workers and practitioners, despite their education and profession are vulnerable to PCS factors and need to ensure that they approach the issue on the basis that the disabled, while being different, are part of mainstream society and need help and assimilation, not pity. Current legislation calls for the active involvement of social workers in assessing the needs of disabled people and studies indicate that responses
of social workers are influenced by a number of variables and often differ in assessing the needs of service users. Understanding the perspectives of service users is essential for assessing their actual needs. (Noe, 2007)
“Social workers will have to be flexible without losing focus, take cognizance of the views of disabled people, be theoretically informed, be ready to challenge and change existing ideas and practices, analyse the oppressive nature of organisational culture and its impact on practice, include continuous reflection and evaluation of practice, have multidimensional change strategies, which incorporate the concepts of networking, user involvement, partnership and participation, and analyse the issues of power, both personal and structural.” (Noe, 2007)
The contribution of disabled people to the workplace, especially in the context of an ageing society, can be immense and their inclusion will not just bring in the benefits of diversity but also add to organisational skills and competitive advantage f organisations. Whilst enacted laws will no doubt help in bringing in assimilation and integration, real progress will occur only with the proactive support of employers, service providers and social workers. These include making adjustments to premises, allocating some of the duties of disabled persons to others, altering working hours, acquiring or modifying equipment, providing good quality training and supervision, not refuse to provide services, and change existing policies and procedures to make them disabled-friendly.
Businesses would be well served by conducting access audits and involving disabled persons in recruitment, selection, training, and assimilation processes. Keeping disabled people out of workplaces, and refusing them to give them their due rights makes bad social and business sense because even as society loses out on their contribution, in exchange for some very small cost and adjustment issues, it denies them the opportunity to live meaningful and dignified lives. Nine out of seventy million Britishers are disabled; the able bodied need to realise that even one road accident or a multiple sclerosis attack could make them disabled, and whether that would be good enough reason for excluding them from the rights and benefits available to other citizens.
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