Making necessary adjustments

The Disability Discrimination Act came into being this month. It calls for companies with more than 20 staff to adjust working environments to cater for the disabled. Matthew Valentine assesses what implications this has for design groups

For more than a week many design companies have had a new set of rules to follow with regard to the employment of disabled people. Early signs suggest that most don’t yet realise it.

The Disability Discrimination Act, described by Education and Employment Secretary Gillian Shephard as “a milestone for disabled people”, sets down new employment rights for the disabled. It came into force on 2 December.

In summary, it has become illegal for employers of more than 20 staff to discriminate against job applicants because of their disability, “without justification”. This may make it necessary for employers to make “reasonable adjustments” to working arrangements or premises if they are judged to put disabled workers at a disadvantage.

A survey of UK design companies found generally low numbers of disabled staff, plus low awareness levels concerning the new act (see News, page 3). There is also cynicism among those aware of the act over whether it will achieve its intended results.

In their defence, a number of designers say that disabled applicants for design posts are so rare that there is little scope for discrimination. Access problems at many colleges offering design courses have kept the number of disabled graduates low.

Even large design companies such as Fitch have few disabled employees – despite a non-discriminatory recruitment policy, the consultancy could think of just two disabled employees among the total of 300 in its UK and US offices.

Kenneth Grange, partner at Pentagram, says: “In defence of the trade I think people are generous by instinct in our business.” But he says that it will be a long time before the Disability Discrimination Act sinks deeply enough into the public consciousness to “have teeth”.

Patricia Herbert of the John Herbert Partnership says that the act is badly needed, but rendered effectively pointless until the Government introduces obligations to public transport operators, so that disabled passengers can get to work in the first place. “Instead, they have foisted that responsibility on to employers,” she says. She is also of the opinion that the “quagmire of vagaries” in the act will prove a goldmine for lawyers but not provide real benefits for the disabled.

David Mackay, associate director of Crabtree Hall, says the new legislation will not be a factor for many small to medium-sized design groups, which are increasingly relying on freelances rather than permanent staff. They therefore fall below the 20 employee threshold. And he fears that the act will not succeed in its intended role: “I would have thought people will just pay it lip service,” he says.

The first factor that most employers consider when addressing disability is wheelchair access to premises. More than one designer pointed to the “character” premises preferred by many design groups, and the consequent difficulties involved in making them more accessible.

However, disabilities take many forms, many of which do not involve wheelchairs. The act covers all forms of disability, meaning that text telephones for staff with impaired hearing or colour schemes to help those with impaired vision are more likely adaptations to be needed.

And as graphic designer Katy Etherington points out (see box), adaptations to buildings which make them more accessible to wheelchairs also make them more accessible to the elderly and those with young children. Clients may be as likely to fall into each of these categories as staff, so any changes made may not prove as expensive to employers as they fear.

Fortunately, employers are not alone when it comes to bearing the costs of conversions: help can be found. Design consultancy Motivation, which developed the BBC Design Awards-shortlisted, low-cost Mekong wheelchair for use in Cambodia, recently relocated to Bristol. A number of employees at the company are disabled. It received council grants and donations to aid with the conversion of its offices in a former schoolhouse. The building is now equipped with lifts and ramps and is fully accessible to wheelchairs.

As employers, design consultancies fail to comply with the act at their own risk. The main danger they face could be an employee, or unsuccessful job applicant, taking them to an industrial tribunal to face charges of discrimination. Cash-conscious consultancies will no doubt be awaiting the first test case, to provide them with a more tangible definition of “reasonable”, and of what their duties to employees will be in practice.

The Disability Discrimination Act applies to employers with more than 20 staff. It means that:

Employers may not treat disabled staff or applicants less favourably than others without justification. Justification must, according to advice from the Department for Education and Employment, “be both material to the particular circumstances and substantial”.

Employers are obliged to take any reasonable steps to make changes to premises or employment arrangements if they disadvantage disabled people. Failure to do so could count as discrimination.

According to DFEE advice, a list of “reasonable adjustments” could include: lowering light switches, redecorating to provide better contrast for the visually impaired, altering working hours for certain staff (for example, if they have trouble using public transport at peak times), moving furniture to aid access and acquiring special equipment such as adapted keyboards, telephones or workstations.

When defining “reasonable” adjustments, the DFEE takes into account the effectiveness, practicality and financial costs of the changes, as well as the disruption that would be caused. The financial costs would be weighed against the resources of the employer.

The act applies to recruitment, including job specifications, application forms, selection and assessment techniques, and the terms of employment offered.

People who were previously classed as disabled, for example by mental illness, but have since recovered, are included in the act. It becomes unlawful to discriminate against a person because of past illnesses.

Disabled graphic designer Katy Etherington illustrates the way forward:

The issue of disabled employees has wider implications for the design industry than may at first be apparent, according to graphic designer Katy Etherington, a wheelchair user.

She feels that disabled designers have a deeper than usual insight into certain aspects of design, but are currently stuck in a catch-22 situation where they are unable to prove their talents.

While designers claim that they are not prejudiced towards disabled designers, many would be unable to employ disabled staff. Etherington tells of job interviews held in pubs, cafés and parks because she could not get into potential employers’ offices.

Etherington graduated with an HND in graphic design 18 months ago and has been unable to secure a full-time job since then. In her dissertation, entitled the attitudes of and towards disabled people in graphic design, Etherington points out that many everyday objects, such as the machines for processing debit card payments in shops, can be difficult to use if you are disabled. Many interiors, for example in shops, cause similar problems. And she laments the design of products aimed at the disabled, which she says are too often entirely functional and ugly.

“I understand it’s difficult and that many buildings are not suitable. But design groups should at least think about it. Maybe next time they move, or even design packaging, they will,” she says.

She says that the new legislation is unlikely to benefit her situation. Depending on interpretation of the Disability Discrimination Act, changes required to make buildings accessible to disabled staff may not be necessary if they are considered “unreasonable”. “More should have been done to encourage changes rather than force them,” she says.

Etherington hopes that successful disabled designers will pave the way for others by showing employers that disability is not an impediment to design.

And she hopes that could lead to more effective design work being created. “It’s not just disabled people who would benefit: old people and parents with prams would too,” she says.

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