Equality: Let’s Act!

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5 years on from the Equality Act 2010, has equality been achieved?

Short answer: No. Long answer: No, because the ideas behind the Equality Act were not advertised.
If you’ve never read the Equality Act, I’d say put it to the bottom of the reading list. War of the Worlds is much more entertaining, and anything by Delia Smith is more useful on a day-to-day basis.
I’ll admit to having read some of it, and there’s definitely some odd aspects to it. Here’s the highlights:
1. A business or organisation has to make “reasonable adjustments” to prevent a person with a disability being at a “substantial disadvantage” compared to a person without a disability.
2. Businesses and organisations are expected to make these arrangements without being asked.
3. If they refuse to make a “reasonable adjustment”, they can be sued for a breach of the Equality Act by anyone who has experienced a “substantial disadvantage”.
This is great, and was hailed in 2010 as the dawn of a barrier free world. Looking around, this brave new world looks a lot like the old one. There are still shops with steps to the only entrance. There are still epic battles being waged on public transport. There’s still no action the lack of wheelchair accessible housing (and I won’t stop going on about it until there is). There are still problems with access to university education, air travel, cinemas… the list goes on…
That’s not to say progress hasn’t been made in any of these areas. Some businesses are waking up to the lucrative purple pound, and individual campaigners across the country are making headway against the tide of same-old same-old.
But why hasn’t the tide turned? Why didn’t every business buy a folding ramp in 2010 and install a hearing loop? Why didn’t the double glazing salesmen suddenly have a special offer on level threshold doorways with an extra discount for lightweight doors? Why didn’t pasta sauce manufacturers demand that the designers of the labels for the jars use a bigger font that’s actually readable?
The simple answer is no-one told them to. It’s not easy to find an “Accessibility for Dummies” book, even if you look for one. Generic “How to… business” books have very little, if any, information on accessibility. Even if they did, we run into the same questions: What is a “reasonable adjustment” anyway? And how much of a disadvantage does there have to be before it can be called “substantial”?
The best definition of “reasonable” I can come up with is “not unreasonable”, which is only marginally better. “Not unreasonable” points out that unless there’s a good reason you can’t, you should. But we’re still left with another question: What counts as a good reason?
A small business owner has neither the time nor the inclination to explore disability theory. A large business has the time, and the resources, but rarely the expertise or the incentives to ensure they’re meeting their obligations. Local departments and not-for-profit organisations (schools, GP practices…) are essentially in the same position as the small business: no time, no money, very little information.
Something should be done about this, the old battle cry echoes. Why isn’t anyone stopping these places breaking the law?
The simple answer is: because no-one told us to. The responsibility for calling these miscreants to account lies in the hands of people with disabilities. Yet how many of us would know where to start? I wouldn’t. Isn’t suing somebody expensive? Who has the time?
Suddenly we’re also in the position of the small business owner: short on information, money, and time. There is still Legal Aid available to help with the cost of taking a disability discrimination case to court, but we’re still short on the information. Doug Paulley, of busgate fame, has written the fantastically named “Disability Attitude Re-adjustment Tool”, which should immediately placed in a time capsule to tell future archaeologists everything they need to know about disability in the early 21st century. It’s also a good read, though as Mr. Paulley states at the beginning, it’s not legal advice.
The House of Lords is soon to debate the impact of the Equality Act 2010 so far. Other than talk about specific examples, I would tell them two things. Firstly, do not under any circumstances scrap it or water it down. It’s already pretty vague but it’s the best we’ve ever had and will continue to be a tool for progress. Secondly, businesses, organisations, and people with disabilities need access to good quality, in depth, easy to find information.
When a small business owner looks at you from the top of two steps to a doorway with a confused expression and says “We’ve never had anyone come in here and ask for a ramp before,” and doesn’t understand why that’s funny, something needs to change.
Equality Act 2010: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2010/15/section/20
Disability Attitude Re-adjustment Tool: http://www.kingqueen.org.uk/dart/

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