Public bodies face disability law change

New code of practice singles out IT systems

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The UK's 45,000 public bodies face a fundamental change to the way they operate with the arrival of new disability legislation, which came into force today.

The new law was introduced by the Disability Discrimination Act of 2005 which amended the 1995 Act of the same name. It forces bodies to take the needs of disabled people into account when planning everything from buildings to websites.

The new Disability Equality Duty (DED) places a legal obligation on public bodies to consider the needs of the disabled when planning services. In carrying out their functions, the Act says public authorities must "have due regard" to needs that include eliminating discrimination and promoting positive attitudes towards disabled people.

Around 10 million people in the UK have rights under the Disability Discrimination Act, according to the Disability Rights Commission (DRC).

"The Disability Equality Duty will have a major impact on the lives of disabled people and will radically shift the way public authorities deliver their services," said DRC chairman Bert Massie.

"Public bodies – from the local library to the NHS – will have to consider what disabled people need when planning their services. This is a step-change away from individual disabled people having to complain about discrimination after an incident has taken place," said Massie.

Under accompanying Regulations, all public bodies must publish a Disability Equality Duty scheme by Monday which outlines how it will fulfil the new equality duty. A 196 page Code of Practice from the DRC gives guidance on what is expected.

Tech impact

Struan Robertson, editor of OUT-LAW.COM and a technology lawyer with Pinsent Masons, said IT procurement will be affected by this change in the law.

"Public sector employers should read and follow the Code of Practice," he said. "In any court proceedings over disability discrimination, the DRC's Codes are influential and therefore must not be ignored."

Robertson pointed to a provision of the code that addresses IT systems directly.

The code states: "A government department that is planning to procure a new IT system should ensure that its action plan includes the work it will do to ensure that the new system is suitable for use by disabled employees."

Robertson said this complements new procurement rules that were introduced earlier this year. The Public Contracts Regulations 2006 state: "When laying down technical specifications...a contracting authority shall, wherever possible, take into account accessibility criteria for disabled persons or the suitability of the design for all users."

Media and telecoms regulator Ofcom published its version of the Disability Equality Duty yesterday, which outlines not only how it will behave as an employer but also how it will promote equality in its work as a regulator.

It says it will review communications networks and services to assess how well they meet disabled users' needs and will ensure that broadcasters produce enough programming with sign language and subtitles.

"New communications technologies continue to emerge, providing more choice and opportunity for consumers to access entertainment and information and to interact with each other," Ofcom chairman David Currie said in the document. "But full participation for all is not a given; service providers and manufacturers need to take into account the needs of disabled people."

"As the UK's communications regulator, Ofcom has a number of duties designed to ensure disabled people have fair access to electronic communications," he said. "These include setting and monitoring targets for television access services (subtitling, audio description, and signing) and encouraging the availability of easy to use equipment."

The Disability Equality Duty does not just demand that public bodies act in a non-discriminatory way when it comes to people with disabilities, but that they actively promote equality. "The Disability Equality Duty will ensure that public bodies become 'change agents', developing policies, procedures, and services that not only combat disability discrimination but actively promote disability equality," said the DRC.

The DRC will be the enforcement body for the Disability Equality Duty. "Only the DRC can issue a compliance notice on an authority which does not comply with the specific duties," it said. "If it is not complied with then action can be taken by the DRC in the county or sherrif court. An individual cannot issue a compliance notice, nor can they bring any legal proceedings because, for example, an authority has not involved disabled people in its scheme."

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