Be reasonable!

This week, the States of Jersey has, finally, voted to add disability to its list of characteristics protected under the Discrimination Law. The law will be in force on 1 September 2018. This is a long overdue and important piece of legislation that will protect some of the island’s most vulnerable residents and visitors.

The Jersey Disability Survey published in 2016 found that there are about 14,000 disabled people in Jersey, if you use the UK Equality Act definition of disability. This rises to about 33,000 if you use the social model of disability, which Jersey’s law does. According to the results, people most likely to be disabled in Jersey are:

  • older (especially 75 and over): For example, 13% of respondents aged 16-34 are disabled compared to 51% of respondents aged 85 and over;
  • on low incomes (especially below £25,000): For example, 35% of respondents on low income (household income under £15,000 per annum) have a disability compared with 9% of respondents with a household income of £75,000 or more per annum;
  • living in social housing: For example, 35% of respondents living in social housing have a disability compared with 16% of respondents that own or privately rent or 12% of respondents that live in non-qualified accommodation;
  • not in employment (or not actively engaged in education or as a homemaker): For example, 70% of unemployed respondents or those unable to work have a disability compared with 11% of employed/engaged respondents or 30% of retired respondents;
  • living alone: For example, 26% of respondents that live on their own have a disability compared with 15% of other respondents.

Instead of heralding the disability discrimination legislation as an important step forward in equality for disabled islanders that might enable them to get an interview for a job at the very least, the headline in the Jersey Evening Post today is: “Improving disabled access ‘could bankrupt small firms’”. This is sensationalist reporting that takes no account of what is actually written in the new law.

Under the new disability part of the Discrimination Law, businesses are going to be required to make reasonable adjustments to their provisions, criterions or practices (‘PCPs’) and/or their physical premises to remove a substantial disadvantage for a disabled employee or customer. The key word in all this is ‘reasonable’. Responding to the comments in the JEP, it is not reasonable to ask a small business to put in a lift in an old building that they tenant, and this is covered by the part of the law that says:

“In determining whether the person has taken reasonable steps to avoid the substantial disadvantage, matters to be taken into account may include –

(a) the extent to which –

(i) the likelihood of the substantial disadvantage was reasonably foreseeable, and
(ii) any steps which are, or would be if taken, proportionate to such degree of likelihood;

(b) the extent to which any steps are, or would be if taken, effective to prevent or remove the substantial disadvantage;
(c) the extent to which any steps are, or would be if taken, practical;
(d) the cost of any steps that have or might be taken;
(e) the extent of the financial, administrative and any other resources available to the person, including any provided by a third party, for the purpose of taking any steps; and
(f) characteristics of the person such as the nature of the person’s business, if any, and size.”

Reasonable adjustments can generally be made at little or no cost to the employer. Many adjustments will cost absolutely nothing to implement, such as allowing for flexible working, changes to the dress code or allowing someone to sit instead of stand (or vice versa). According to The Disability Rights Commission in the UK, the average cost of adjustments is just £75.

So, before we put up “closing down sale” notices in all the St Helier shop windows, please consider what the law is actually asking businesses to do.

Take an example: You own a small boutique in town in an old building with a narrow front entrance. Your margins are small, rent is high and you struggle to make any profit after paying yourself and your one member of staff. You do not have the resources to widen your doorway and put in a ramp for wheelchair users.

One day, you see a wheelchair user looking at your window display. They see something they like, wheel to your front door and attempt to come in, but cannot do so. What would be a reasonable course of action in this case? Make a big show of calling your architect and builder to widen the doorway? Of course not.

The reasonable action is for either you or your member of staff to approach the wheelchair user, ask them what item they were interested in and take the item to them to look at. This is simply good customer service. You are considering the particular needs of that customer and responding to them. You could go further and offer to deliver a selection of similar items to the disabled person’s home so they could try them on and choose one. The result of this personal service is that you are likely to get repeat business and great references.

And how much did that reasonable adjustment cost you? Nothing – just a little bit of time and effort.

The following day, a person with autism walks into your shop, purchases an item and walks out again. Remember: not all disabilities are visible or require lifts, ramps, hoists etc! The majority of disabilities that you will encounter in your workplace will not be because a person is using a wheelchair.

Reasonable adjustments require us to all think about how we can resolve the barrier being put in front of the disabled person. We may need to ask the disabled person to help us adjust, we may need to be creative, we may need to ask an expert, but it is not difficult to adjust if we empathise with the disabled person and ask ourselves what would I like someone to do for me in the same situation?

So, let’s celebrate the fact that Jersey has done the right thing by its disabled islanders, and remember that we will all grow old and, one day, we might find ourselves disabled and need someone to make a reasonable adjustment for us.

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