Public Sector Professions Fall Foul Of Anti-Discrimination Laws

Current guidelines used to determine whether people can train and practise as teachers, nurses and social workers are likely to fall foul of anti-discrimination laws, an independent legal review. The review forms part of the Disability Rights Commission’s (DRC’s) investigation into the legal framework governing entry and progress in nursing, teaching and social work.

The review also found significant variations in the criteria used for entry in the three professions in Scotland, England and Wales.

In the first assessment of its kind to examine the criteria used to determine entry to the professions against the requirements of the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA), the review found that there was no recognition of the DDA in some sectors’ statutory documents. This is despite the fact that the regulations governing training and entry were compiled after 1995 – the year the DDA was passed by Parliament.

The review also found that ‘health’ and ‘fitness’ are defined in a confusing variety of ways across countries and sectors. In some cases, such as the teaching profession in Scotland, the focus is on competence and conduct and not on attempting to define and assess health.

Bert Massie, Chairman of the DRC, said: “Our investigation has uncovered over 70 separate regulations and pieces of guidance across these three sectors, yet the overwhelming majority of them take no account of the DDA. This means that despite the minefield of regulations governing teaching, nursing and social work, disabled people are in severe danger of experiencing discrimination, both at the point of entry when they undertake training and also later on, once they start working.”

Direct discrimination under the DDA occurs when a disabled person is discriminated against purely on the grounds of their disability. As much of the regulations and guidance is very general (e.g. the Nursing and Midwifery Council rules call for someone to merely be in ‘good health’) stereotypical assumptions can be made about a persons’ fitness to perform a role and this can result in direct discrimination.

As part of its investigation, the DRC has uncovered case studies that highlight problems of discrimination against disabled people. For example:

  • Philip Stott, aged 40, from Warrington, Cheshire, said he experienced considerable discrimination when he attempted to change profession and re-train as a teacher. This was despite a positive occupational health assessment that said he was perfectly safe to teach. Stott was injured in a motorbike accident when he was aged 18 which left his shoulder at risk of dislocation. Philip said: “I told the college about my condition from the beginning, yet after the first time my shoulder dislocated and I had to go to hospital to get it fixed, they started saying ‘you can’t do this’ and ‘you can’t do that’. In the end they prevented me from continuing on the course.”
  • Joanne Harrison, aged 25, from Colchester, Essex, had always dreamed of becoming a social worker, but was told she must drop her degree after being diagnosed with ME. Joanne said she was devastated at the news: “They told me I was off the course just like that. There was no warning, nothing. I tried to stand up for myself, my health has greatly improved, but they disregarded all of that. The senior occupational therapist wrote a really good letter saying how capable I was but they just disregarded it completely.”
  • Stuart Nixon, aged 42 and an NHS manager from Newport, Gwent, was diagnosed with MS aged 14 and went on to train as a nurse. Stuart was offered no support to manage his condition while training and no support once he started work. Instead he was encouraged to look at other areas of NHS employment. Stuart eventually decided to give up nursing and re-train in general management. Stuart said: “I was asked to consider whether nursing was an appropriate career for someone with MS simply because people couldn’t see beyond my diagnosis. On the ward they only looked at five per cent of my role which I couldn’t do, they didn’t see the 95 per cent that I could do.”
  • Nicky Heazell, a disabled nurse discovered an early vocation for nursing because of her own experiences. But she said this is not always valued within the profession, though it can be by patients. Nicky said: “I have a false arm but it is more comfortable for me not to wear it. During my training, one ward manager made me wear it as she said that my scar was unsightly. I was treating a teenage girl who’d recently had her arm amputated. Later she said that I had inspired her. I didn’t realise that I had helped her in any way as she was just coming out of anaesthetic and was quite groggy. I was just getting on with my nursing.”

Bert Massie concluded: “Disabled people want to make a contribution to Britain’s public services, which employ millions of people and have an impact on all our lives. These vital services benefit from diverse experiences and perspectives.

“We would not accept any of these professions being all white, all male or all female. They should not be no-go areas for disabled people either. Yet people who are disabled or have long-term health conditions, as the cases we have come across illustrate, are being denied opportunities to progress and these professions are all the poorer for it.”

The DRC’s year-long investigation is the most wide-ranging analysis of disability-related fitness standards in the public sector that has been undertaken. The investigation will conduct a legal review, two research projects, a call for evidence and run an Inquiry Panel which will take oral evidence from organisations. The final report is due in the summer of 2007.