Employment partner Kevin Jaquiss shared his thoughts about homeworking a few weeks ago. As his recovery from his accident continues, he reflects here on a new perspective on discrimination.
Commentators in the UK have been in self-congratulatory mood recently over the fuss in Australia about Ian Thorpe – the Thorpedo of the Sydney Olympics in 2000. Channel 10 has been promising sensational revelations about his sexuality, trailing that he has been “dogged by gay rumours” “despite being seen with a string of beautiful girlfriends”. It would never happen here, we are told. In the past 20 years, the UK has got over homophobia and the belief that a person’s sexual preferences beyond the opposite sex are of interest in themselves.
Equality legislation is generally taken to have begun in the UK with the Race Relations Act 1965 (with further legislation in 1968, 1976 and 2000), then the Equal Pay Act 1970 (followed by the Sex Discrimination Act 1975) and the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (with further legislation in 2005).
The Equality Act 2010 now provides for nine protected characteristics – age; disability; gender reassignment; marriage and civil partnership; pregnancy and maternity; race; religion or belief; sex; and sexual orientation. The boundaries are always being pushed and tested. In the last week, John Bercow has suggested that “heightism” should be outlawed, whilst Ashers Baking Company in Northern Ireland is fighting for its right as a Christian family business to decline an order from a gay rights activist, asking for cake featuring the Sesame Street puppets, Bert and Ernie, and the logo of a Belfast-based campaign group called “Queerspace” which was to be displayed at a civic event in Bangor Castle Town Hall, County Down to mark International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.
It is probably correct that none of this would have happened 20 years ago. We are mostly clear, as employers and service providers, that we have obligations to treat people equally. 20 years ago clients would be astonished to hear they were not allowed to discriminate. Now the working assumption (often also incorrect) is that any kind of poor treatment of someone who is in some way different is likely to lead to an expensive day at the Tribunal.
So I am tempted to join in the self-congratulation; but a tiny glimpse into the world of those who live with a disability has sounded a note of caution. I talked in my last blog about working from home but now (thanks to many, many repetitions of physio exercises) I am starting to be able to do extraordinary things like sit at tables and in a car. So my wife and I decided to get away for a night to a hotel with good facilities for people with disabilities. And so it proved; there were no steps to get into our room (which had a massive wet room with lots of handles to hold on to), no steps to get into the garden and only two steps to get into the restaurant. The food was good too. The facilities went way beyond the minimum which the legislation provides for in practice (just think about the hotels and restaurants you go to and how accessible they are) and everyone was really helpful. But one tiny thing hit me. When we arrived and whenever I went anywhere in a wheelchair or on crutches, people didn’t speak to me; they spoke to my wife about me and what I needed. It’s the experience people with disabilities have told us about for years and I suppose I thought it had gone the way of sleazy stories about the sexuality of celebrities. But there it is – I’m lucky, I just have a broken leg, but even so I’m being treated differently.
Most modern equality and diversity policies in the employment world talk about more than the bare bones of the legislation. They talk about how we should treat each other, about respect for everyone, as well as about how we offer jobs to people and how we decide about promotions. If we want all the benefits of a diverse workforce, we need to focus on our culture as well as on our processes – otherwise we will be complying with our statutory responsibilities but still making people feel they are less than full members of our teams.