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How does the Disability Discrimination Act support people with MS?

Aidan Murray Crook, MS Legal Officer
Disability Law Service, London

Way Ahead 2010;14(1):6-7


A wheelchair at the bottom of a flight of steps
[The Disability Discrimination Act was replaced by the Equality Act in October 2010. This retains the provisions of the earlier Act and extends protection from discrimination further.]

Besides the physiological challenges and limitations imposed on people living with a long-term neurological condition such as MS, certain societal and environmental constructs sometimes hinder rather than help the continuation of normal day-to-day activities for people living with such conditions. In spite of its existence, many people with MS are unaware of the protection afforded to them under the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA); or are otherwise unable to penetrate through the legal jargon to decipher its meaning. Aidan Murray Crook, MS Legal Officer for the Disability Law Service, discusses the far reaching implications of the DDA for people with MS, and how the Disability Law Service can help people with MS ensure that their rights are recognised.

The day-to-day problems faced by people with MS, regardless of their level of disability, often extend far beyond health related contexts. Living with MS can present challenges in a variety of arenas including the home, workplace, educational, public, social and commercial settings. The specific needs of people with MS are not always met and appeals for the necessary modifications or adaptations are not always accommodated. People with MS are not always aware that legislation exists to support such appeals; or perhaps find the prospect of a 'legal entanglement' somewhat daunting. Furthermore, given that people with MS often do not perceive the obstacles presented to them on a day-to-day basis as 'discrimination' - perhaps because they are not directly or even consciously discriminatory - they may not even identify it as such.

The Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) is legislation that makes it illegal for providers of goods and services and for employers to discriminate against people with long-term conditions on the grounds of their condition. This Act specifically covers MS from the date of diagnosis, regardless of the actual level of disability. Besides a lack of awareness of the Act, people with MS are often unaware of the support that is available to them when they are seeking to challenge the constructs or attitudes that are in breach of the DDA.

This is where the Disability Law Service can lend support. The Disability Law Service is a London-based charity providing free confidential legal advice to disabled people across England and Wales. The organisation employs legal advisors and solicitors who specialise in the law that relates to: health and social care; welfare benefits; discrimination in employment and further education; and access to goods, services and facilities.

In the years of experience the Disability Law Service has had in working with people with MS, the workplace is the context within which challenges most frequently arise. This is not surprising given that many people with MS are diagnosed at a relatively young age with years of working life still ahead of them. People with MS often seek guidance on whether or not they are obliged to disclose their MS to an employer, and what would happen if they were dismissed or discriminated against as a result of withholding such information.

The DDA protects people with MS against unfair treatment and direct discrimination in the workplace where it is related to their condition. Under the Act, employers are expected to consider making 'reasonable adjustments' within the workplace for people with a disability; where to fail to do so would put them at a significant disadvantage to their non-disabled peers. While there is no precise definition of what constitutes a 'reasonable adjustment', it may include improving the working environment itself; such as changes to heating or changes in seating position, and in some cases, adjustments to workplace practices, policies and procedures.

Sometimes, people with MS will present with cognitive problems, and this can occasionally result in errors or mistakes being made at work. This may lead to a disciplinary meeting or in more serious cases the person with MS might even face dismissal. The Disability Law Service can provide legal advice on all work-related issues whether people are seeking reasonable adjustments to their work or support against unfair disciplinary or dismissal procedures.

Outside of the workplace, people with MS may find themselves indirectly discriminated against in the provision of certain services offered and businesses and organizations are required to make reasonable adjustments in the provision of their services and facilities. An example of this sort of discrimination might be a situation in which a person with MS finds themselves having problems accessing a restaurant, shopping centre, or other public facility. The DDA makes it unlawful for a business or organisation to discriminate against a disabled person when providing such a service or facility. Certain premises ought to be accessible to disabled people, and businesses and organisations are required to make reasonable adjustments in the provision of their services and facilities.

Furthermore, the DDA offers protection to people with disabilities in the provision of further education or consumer contracts. If a person with MS above the age of 16 requires certain concessions or adjustments in their College or University course as a result of their condition, the education provider may be obliged to accommodate their needs. A common example of a consumer contract issue relates to the difficulties people with MS often face in making insurance claims when they have not disclosed their MS or MS related symptoms.

Local councils and NHS Trusts also have responsibilities to people with MS relating to the provision of social care to disabled people, the provision of grants to assist disabled people in adapting their homes, and issues which arise when people lack mental capacity. The Disability Law Service can help people with MS gain a fuller understanding of these laws.

Whether it is ensuring educational institutions make reasonable adjustments; challenging an insurance company on the grounds that they are acting unlawfully; advising people with MS and their families on how to obtain the services they require, or resolving a disagreement about the welfare decisions relating to someone with MS who lacks mental capacity, the Disability Law Service offers free legal advice over the telephone. In some circumstances, and depending on the merits of a particular case, the Disability Law Service may also carry out casework.

For more general information about the Disability Law Service, visit the DLS website.
For people with MS, their families, and the health professionals who work with them, the MS Legal Officer can be contacted on 0207 791 9800 or via email at msadvice@dls.org.uk
For more information about work related issues and MS, order the MS Trust publication At Work with MS.
The book considers some of the ways in which MS might affect work, the protection afforded under the Disability Discrimination Act and what adjustments can be made for a successful working life with MS.

Further Reading

Office of Public Sector Information 2009.
Disability Discrimination Act 1995 [cited 2009; 29th July]
Available from: URL: www.opsi.gov.uk/acts/acts1995/ukpga_19950050_en_1