Are we tackling employment discrimination effectively?

August 21, 2018

by editor Victoria Galligan

Despite disability discrimination being illegal under the Equality Act 2010, many people with disabilities find getting work difficult – either through direct discrimination during the application process, or because health issues affect their working pattern. 

In a recent case, a DWP worker was awarded £26,000 in compensation after his employer was found to have discriminated against him, after he took time off for medical reasons. Barrie Caulcutt had suffered an asthma attack at work and his employer had called him "a whinger". He was given a written warning for taking two and a half days off sick more than he was allowed.

Here, UCan2 looks at some examples of employment discrimination and finds out how the Government, together with various charities and organisations, are trying to tackle the issue of employment discrimination against people with disabilities…

Autism and the workplace

Autism affects 700,000 people in the UK to some degree, and the figures on autistic people in employment have remained low in recent years. 

Anna Collishaw-Nikodemus, Policy Officer at the National Autistic Society, said, “At the National Autistic Society, we still don’t know the exact number of autistic people in work, as autism isn’t currently recorded in the Government’s Labour Force Survey. But our research suggests that just 16% of autistic adults are in full-time paid work – and that this hasn’t improved in almost a decade.

“In 2016, we launched a national campaign to close the Autism Employment Gap. Since then, the Government has unveiled its plan for improving employment rates for disabled people. This includes positive steps, such as increased internship opportunities, improved careers advice, and pilots of supported employment. But we are concerned that the plans don’t go far enough to outline the concrete steps that we need to take to close the Autism Employment Gap.

“Not all autistic people are able to work. But our research found that over three quarters of unemployed autistic people told us they want to work and with a little understanding and small adjustments to the recruitment process and workplace, autistic adults can be a real asset to businesses across the UK.”

Rebecca James, head of academy living at Orbis Education and Care, which provides day schools and residential care for people with autism, told that employers are missing out, explaining, “Many autistic people have skills that are highly sought after in the workplace. They are often experts in specific topics, as they are passionate about subjects that interest them. They are methodical, brilliant researchers, pay considerable attention to detail and are highly productive. So, why aren’t more autistic people in paid employment?

“It may be that employers lack awareness about what autistic people can offer. Or they may not have the right support network in place for autistic employees. It’s something Orbis is working hard to address.”

Mental health issues ‘hidden’ 

Sometimes a health issue is not visually apparent to an employer. Chris O’Sullivan, head of business development and engagement at the Mental Health Foundation, said the fear of being treated differently was leading people to hide their mental health issues. He said, “There are 300,000 people leaving the UK workforce every year because of mental health problems (Thriving at Work, 2017). People with mental health problems are less likely to be employed than disabled people in general. 

“In 2016, the Mental Health Foundation surveyed people who were working, and who had experienced a mental health problem in the last five years. Around half had disclosed at work and 29% of those who had disclosed at work had experienced direct discrimination because of their mental health. The most commonly cited reason for choosing not to divulge – highlighted by over 50% of respondents – was fear of discrimination – a fear that sadly remains well founded.  Recent research found that 15% of employees have faced dismissal, demotion or disciplinary action after disclosing mental health problems at work – a 6% increase since 2016. (BITC, 2017).”

Kickstarting your career

Lasiân, an Online Community Intern at disability charity Scope, told us about her experience of trying to find work. 

Lasiân says, "Like most of my family, I had been set on becoming a nurse. I was excited when I got into my preferred University (despite fainting in the middle of an exam and struggling to stay awake for coursework) until I realised I didn’t feel able to complete the training or have a career in nursing with my health conditions – Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (PoTS) and Hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (hEDS).

"While trying to make new plans after improving from a bad year of barely being able to function out of bed, I found I couldn’t think of anything that I would be both content and physically able to do. I started applying for any job that seemed suitable but still didn’t have much luck. 

"When I disclosed my health conditions on applications, I encountered mostly silence back from employers. If I hadn’t disclosed them and then had an interview where I had to discuss adjustments, I was told at the end that it went “really well” yet I wouldn’t hear anything back regarding the role. I had once been in a job for a couple of weeks when they told me to go home early to rest and that they would call me when they needed me – they never contacted me again.

"Frustratingly, when I had a job it impacted my conditions so much that I felt horrible at work and didn’t feel well enough to do anything outside of it. It felt like my life had gotten stuck.”

Thankfully, Lasiân found another avenue thanks to Scope’s  Kickstart employment service – which provides personalised support for disabled people to find, apply for and keep a job.

She added, “One of my first tasks after starting the service was to create an action plan with my advisor Mel for what I wanted to achieve and how I could get there – I had proof with each completed task that I was moving forward.

"Before starting with Kickstart I hardly had any knowledge of what help I could access, so thought that employers would find any adjustments I required unjustifiable or that I was just incompatible. My advisor talked me through my entitlements and helped me to think of reasonable adjustments that would make jobs suitable for me. I became more comfortable stating what I needed and being assertive if they weren’t met. 

"I was never guilted or asked for justification if I needed a cab reimbursed to help me get to our meeting place, I was offered Skype or telephone calls when I couldn’t travel at all, and there was no frustration when I had to cancel because I felt too unwell. Because of this, I’ve made it to meetings that I would have otherwise missed. 

"I still struggle with feeling that I should be superhuman in all other ways to ‘compensate’ for my health, and then dealing with the disappointment when I fail to develop the ability to fly or do everything without help, but Kickstart has helped to build my confidence and develop my skills for the future. Even more, the service and Scope itself have made it clear that I don’t need to make up for just being me."

• If an employer is discriminating against you because of your disability, you should contact your union or solicitor for advice. Some helpful contacts are:  

Citizens Advice

Equality Advisory Service



• Visit Scope's Online Community, where disabled people, parents and carers can get advice, information and, can talk to people about their experiences.

•  See Mind and the Mental Health Foundation for legal rights information regarding mental health discrimination.

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