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Disability discrimination law has 'glaring gaps'

7 May 2003 - A legal loophole which allows employers and businesses to discriminate against people with conditions such as Cancer and Multiple Sclerosis should be closed immediately according to the Disability Rights Commission.

In its first major review of current disability discrimination law, the Disability Rights Commission (DRC) calls on the Government to urgently introduce legislation covering people with progressive conditions to ensure they are protected against discrimination from the point at which they are diagnosed.  At present the Disability Discrimination Act provides protection only when symptoms develop which make it difficult for someone to carry out daily activities.

New disability rights legislation should be published in the summer but the Government has yet to indicate when its draft Bill would become law or what further protection it would provide to disabled people.

The DRC is also calling for people with a hereditary condition to be protected by legislation.

The Disability Rights Commission was created three years ago and has helped almost 6,000 disabled people obtain justice. But the DRC has been unable to deal with over 2,000 situations in which disabled people were sacked from work or refused access to services because they were not protected by the law. The DRC cites as examples:

A man who had a predisposition to Huntington's disease but with no symptoms was sacked from his job because his employers feared that one day he might contract the disease.

A person with cancer has spent over two years in the courts fighting to prove he is disabled so that he can take action against his former employers.

The DRC recommends that the Government introduces legislation to cover the following:

* people with progressive illnesses such as Cancer, MS or HIV should be protected from discrimination from the time their condition is diagnosed which is when discrimination can begin;

* a person with a genetic predisposition to a progressive condition should be legally protected from discrimination;

* a disabled person should have the right to reinstatement if the courts have ruled they were unfairly dismissed from work. Currently an employment tribunal cannot order an employer to reinstate a disabled person;

* hate crimes against disabled people should become a criminal offence. Currently, many disabled people face abuse and harassment in public and are not fully protected by the law;

* people with mental health problems should be better protected. Under current legislation, people with mental health problems - who have experienced discrimination - have greater difficulty proving their disability to a court than those with other types of impairment.

Bert Massie, Chairman of the DRC said:

"The Government has signalled its willingness to introduce greater protection for disabled people but there is no timetable for action.

"It is vital that some of these changes - such as bringing people with MS or Cancer within the protection of the law - are introduced this year.

"We need to see all these proposals on the statute books before the Disability Rights Commission is swept into a Single Equality Body. Without tighter legislation, many disabled people will die before they can secure their rights."

Brendan Barber, General Secretary Elect, of the TUC said:

"We back the DRC's proposals to provide greater protection to disabled workers, and have launched our own campaign in support of them. It is vital that those outside the protection of the law - such as people with mental health problems - should be fully protected in the workplace. These new rights must be in force by the end of next year."

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