The Disability Discrimination Act 1995
John Bennett, Pinxton, Nottingham [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
We have all rejoiced in the gospel truth expressed in the words of the hymn writer: ‘Whosoever will may come’. It will soon be our duty under the terms of the Act that forms the title of this article to ensure that the hymn writer's words are reflected in physical reality. Whilst space does not allow a detailed consideration of every situation it is important that trustees of buildings and elders of companies appreciate their new responsibilities under the Act and take appropriate steps to consider how best they can conform to its requirements.
In broad terms the Disability Discrimination Act was passed in 1995 to introduce new measures aimed at ending discrimination against disabled people. The Act aims to protect disabled people and the area that affects us is 'access to goods, facilities and services'.
Local assemblies and churches are seen to be included in this final category as the Act affects anyone who provides facilities or services to members of the public whether paid or free. It is also important to realize that the Act applies to the whole of the United Kingdom.
The Act defines a disabled person as ‘someone with a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term (i.e., twelve months or more) adverse effect on his/her ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities’. In addition to wheelchair users and ambulant disabled people, this definition includes those with poor manual co-ordination, for example who are unable to turn knobs, those with sight or hearing impairment, and those who lack memory, concentration, or understanding. The comprehensive nature of those included in the definition must be borne in mind when considering what needs to be done.
The Act is being implemented in three main phases. Since December 1996 it has been unlawful to treat disabled people less favourably that other people for a reason related to their disability. Since October 1999 service providers, including churches, have had to make reasonable adjustments for disabled people, such as providing extra help or in making changes to the way they provide their services. From October 1st, 2004 the same providers may have to make reasonable adjustments to the physical features of their premises to overcome physical barriers to access. Not defined within the Act is what is meant by the term ‘reasonable’.
Since October 1999 it has been a legal requirement of all organisations, including churches, to make reasonable changes to their policies, procedures and practices to ensure equality of access to services for disabled people. This includes the provision of auxiliary aids such as portable ramps, induction loops for hearing aids, large print hymn books, clear signage, etc., provided it does not involve permanent alteration to the physical features or fabric of the premises.
Some examples of the ‘reasonable’ changes that should be implemented are:
- all approaches and circulating areas free from obstructions, including projections;
- large print hymn books available;
- reserving front seats for the partially sighted, or those who lip read, or removing a chair to create a space for a person with a guide dog;
- providing an induction loop for those with hearing aids and ensuring it is tested regularly;
- marking out reserved parking spaces for those with mobility difficulties and reserving seats near to the appropriate entrance;
- having some seats with arms for those who have difficulty in standing up;
- providing large print paper copies of overhead projector slides that might be obscured from view when people stand.
The alteration to the physical features part will apply from 2004.
By October 1st 2004, churches will be required to take reasonable steps to make physical changes to buildings to ensure equality of access. For example, where there is a physical feature that makes it impossible or unreasonably difficult for a disabled person to enter the building reasonable action needs to be taken to remove, alter, or avoid it. These requirements relate to all buildings, not just new ones.
Some of the major changes envisaged to enable compliance are:
ensuring all internal and external access is level or ramped;
the provision of handrails to assist those using ramps;
the provision of level areas immediately outside doors (which it is assumed open outwards, wherever possible) to ensure that wheelchair users are safe when opening doors to buildings;
the provision of wheelchair accessible toilets.
The building regulations that affect work that might need to be done (called Part M of the Building Regulations) are comprehensive and detailed. Where local believers do not have the expertise available they would be well advised to seek it from appropriate Government papers or their local councils. External changes, including ramps, will require appropriate planning permission and internal changes must comply with current building regulations. This article does not claim to provide all the information and guidance necessary, nor to offer appropriate advice, but is intended to alert assemblies to the need to plan for compliance with this Act. Further guidance can be found on the following Internet web sites:
http://www.legislation. hmso.gov.uk/acts/ acts1995/1995050.htm (for those wanting a full copy of the Act)
http://www.disability. gov.uk (provides an overview of the Act)
http://www.drc-gb.org (Disability Rights Commission)
http://www.robinkent. com/access.html (for historic buildings advice)
This last organisation called 'Through the Roof', also provides inexpensive booklets of useful guidance. They give straightforward advice on how to make your building welcoming to disabled people. Irrespective of the appropriateness of some of the information, it makes interesting reading and will help all who read it thoughtfully, in their handling of people with disabilities.
If you do not have access to the Internet it may be worth enquiring whether such access is available through your local library.