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The Disability Discrimination Act – an often misunderstood piece of legislation

Subsequent statutory instruments have further enhanced the ambit of the legislation (by adding interpretations and codes with further definitions). Organisations and professional advisers alike can misinterpret the implications of this legislation.
The DDA provides that ‘service providers’ have to have made ‘reasonable adjustments’ to their premises by October 1 2004 to allow people with disabilities reasonable access to the services or to provide those services via reasonable alternative means. Failure to comply could result in
a claim for compensation by a disabled person under the DDA. However many provisions of the DDA have been in force since 1996. Since December 2 1996 service providers have been under a duty not to treat disabled people less favourably due to their disability. From December 1
1999 service providers have had to ensure that they make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to their practices and procedures to allow disabled people to utilise their services.
Further service providers are also under a duty to provide auxiliary aids and services (for example large print brochures). Similar (but not identical) provisions have been in force since 1996 to employers that have disabled employees and job applicants.

Terminology in the DDA :
‘Disabled’ does not simply mean wheelchair users. The DDA covers anyone with an impairment affecting his or her day to day activities which is expected to last for more than a year. This includes arthritis, dyslexia and learning difficulties as well as hearing and visual difficulties.
‘Service provider’ is a core definition. It covers anyone who provides goods, facilities or services to the public or section of the public, with or without remuneration (education providers and transport vehicles are subject to separate provision). However there are already grey areas. For instance multi-tenanted offices, with only some of the offices serving the public and others where visitors are by appointment only. In this instance is the landlord providing services to the public? The legislation does not give a definitive answer and this issue will be needed to be clarified in the courts.
‘Reasonable adjustments’ is also imprecise. The type of works needed to comply with the DDA will depend on the type of building and service provider. The codes set out seven (non-exhaustive) criteria (including cost, practicality and the service provider’s resources).
However expensive alterations may not always be necessary. One illustration in a recent article discussed a service provider that required all members of the public to sign a book on entering their premises. The book was located on a desk in front of the receptionist. The desk
was too high and of the wrong design to allow wheelchair-bound members of the public to sign the book. Thus the need to sign the book discriminated against those users. To construct a suitable desk and reception area would have run to several thousand of pounds. However
instead of incurring the expense the actual practices of the company were changed. Now, the receptionist signs in all members of the public thus avoiding any possible discrimination under the DDA. A very simple solution but one that avoided potential discrimination claims and
unnecessary expensive refurbishments.

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