Constructing a disability plan

Employers are urged to take heed of the Disability Discrimination Act, Barbara Oaff warns

Case Studies: Lloyds TSB, The Land Registry

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It’s certainly an interesting oversight. As most employers will be aware, large organisations have been bound by the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) for ten years and in October last year smaller companies also came under its remit. But if you think that a decade is long enough for interested organisations to get their collective heads around the legal issues, you will be surprised. Perhaps even shocked, for it seems that a significant minority still haven’t formally responded to the DDA in regard to the provision of employee benefits. And maybe that’s the point – that, after a decade, some uncertainty, if not apathy, remains. However, as organisations of all sizes must now comply, there is an opportunity to review the legal position once and for all.

This is with no thanks to certain organisations. A leading business group, a well-known disability charity, and a body set up specifically to encourage the employment of people with a disability all said that they hadn’t considered the DDA and benefits. Even the industry body Benefits Alliance had nothing yet to report. Its chairman, Martyn Phillips, states: "We have not discussed the Disability Discrimination Act as yet."

Ignorance may be many things but, for an HR manager, it is certainly not an advantage.

Under the DDA, employers that provide healthcare insurance benefits of whatever kind to able-bodied employees must also provide the same to disabled staff. Should the individual be perceived as a greater risk – prone, for example, to more illness or injury than usual – insurers can charge a higher premium or offer reduced coverage. In extreme cases, such as those involving a life threatening disease, they can reject an individual all together.

The Disability Rights Commission (DRC) insists the latter is "not an opt out clause". Its head of legal services, Pauline Hughes, says: "There has to be cogent evidence to justify the decision."

Were that decision to be taken, the employer may then have to self-insure the employee. Justin Crossland, a consultant with Towers Perrin, explains further: "If insurance was promised in the terms and conditions of employment, the company must self-insure at their own risk. There is no choice."

Similarly, pensions offered to able-bodied employees must also be provided to disabled staff. But once again, the provider can judge the riskiness of the individual and act accordingly. They can not go as far as refusing to cover staff all together but they can specify different terms and possibly smaller payouts. "But only if this is reasonable and what is reasonable is based on the disability of the individual which must be thoroughly and specifically considered," stresses Hughes.

And if an employee was dissatisfied with the outcome? "No-one knows yet what would happen. To date, this situation hasn’t come up, certainly not in the courts, so there is no precedent to be informed by," explains Crossland.

The final phasing in of the DDA last year not only compelled small employers to comply with the law as it stood, it also compelled all organisations to comply with a new aspect of the law: it is no longer possible to exempt disabled employees from work-related bonuses.

Not only that, but these bonuses must be adjusted to take into account any difficulties a disabled employee may have in reaching targets. "This could mean setting a lower target or offering extra resources to meet the standard target," explains Hughes.

In either case, Towers Perrin’s Crossland emphasises that, "their potential and their performance has to be taken into account". He adds that other perks from cars to home computing schemes also fall under the DDA so employers must make reasonable adjustments to ensure that disabled staff can access the same rewards as able-bodied staff. "[But] the definition of what this entails varies."

Hughes explains that it relates to the company’s capacity and resources. She says it ought to be manageable, for example, to adapt a company car to suit someone with lessened mobility, to change a home computer to serve someone with a visual impairment, to modify a mobile phone for someone with a hearing impairment or to install ramps so someone in a wheelchair can access the subsidised staff canteen. But it may not necessarily be manageable to ensure that the gym offering subsidised membership to employees has classes and equipment suitable for a wheelchair user or that the holiday company offering discounts to employees has a brochure in Braille. Grants are available to help cover the cost of making any such reasonable adjustments. "Practical support is there, [but if] companies choose not to make use of it, they may find themselves on a legal sticky wicket," adds Hughes.

The DDA specifies that literature relating to all benefits must be useful to all staff. This can result in communications having to be produced in large print or Braille, put on to audio cassette or intranets being designed in such a way that everyone can use it.

So what happens if a company does not meet its legal requirements? John Kirkham, a consultant with think-tank the Work Foundation, says: "Basically, it can be taken to an employment tribunal and, if found to be guilty, fined. The compensation awarded to the wronged party may be anything from a few hundred pounds to several thousand pounds." There is a PR cost too. "Any company that finds itself in this position will not be treated kindly by the media and its corporate reputation will suffer as a result," he adds.

A new document called Unlocking Potential, by the Employer’s Forum on Disability, outlines why it pays for employers to honour the DDA. It argues that employees with a disability tend to be more productive – they work very hard, they take off few sick days and stay with an employer for longer. In addition, they can bring unique problem-solving skills to the job, which have been honed by the need to solve the various difficulties being disabled can create. Finally, they add that something extra to a team’s morale and development as well as to an organisation’s overall reputation and standing.

And if an employer was to take on a more inclusive approach it would be in good company: most DDA pioneers are considered to be leaders in their field.

Case Study: Lloyd’s TSB

Lloyds TSB offers various initiatives that ensure disabled employees receive the same benefits as able-bodied staff.

These range from hiring an outside company to oversee the prompt implementation of reasonable adjustments, providing information on employee benefits in various formats, such as Braille and audio tapes, and offering disability awareness workshops to line managers.

Andrew Wakelin, senior manager of the Equality and Diversity Department, says: "We have a strong commitment to diversity and have done for a long time; it is just part of our culture now."

Around 2.5% of the bank’s employees have a disability. To ensure that it continues to serve its disabled employees well, an internal organisation has been established for stakeholders to raise issues and discuss solutions. Also, a Personal Development Programme has been started to offer support to those disabled employees hoping to move up the career ladder. "It makes all kinds of sense to remove the artificial barriers that prevent people performing at their best," explains Wakelin.

Case Study: The Land Registry

The Land Registry regularly consults its own in-house committee to ensure disability issues are covered.

Of the Land Registry’s workers, just over 6% have a disability and some of these are behind the organisation’s National Disability Staff Focus Group which meets both virtually and in-person to air work-related issues. This may range from having a database of sign language users made available to making sure that all managers are aware that employees are entitled to rehabilitation leave.

John Nicholson, head of diversity, says: "I see our efforts as the morally right thing to do and the commercially sound thing to do".

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