New ruling extends disability discrimination powers

More disabled people will gain protection from discrimination after a landmark ruling

01 July 2009

More people with disabilities will now receive protection from discrimination after a landmark ruling from the House of Lords today, in which the Commission intervened.

The Lords found that people with a physical or mental condition which varied in its severity over time should still be termed disabled if it was likely their condition would become substantial again in the future. The ruling extends the scope of the term 'disability' meaning more people will be entitled to legal protection.

The Commission intervened in the case to argue that people with medical conditions that they managed themselves but varied in severity over time, should be entitled to the same legal protection as those whose conditions were more stable.

The case was brought by Elizabeth Boyle who alleged she had been discriminated against by her former employer of 32 years, SCA Packaging. She had developed vocal nodules which she managed with a strict regime including speech therapy and only speaking very quietly. Mrs Boyle began her legal action nine years ago after her employer developed plans to remove partitions near her desk despite opposition from Mrs Boyle and her surgeon. The company argued Mrs Boyle was not disabled as her condition no longer had an adverse effect on her life.

Susie Uppal, Director of Legal Enforcement at the Commission, said:

'Many people have chronic medical conditions, such as epilepsy, rheumatoid arthritis or diabetes. Often, they do not define themselves as disabled as they can manage the symptoms or their condition may be in remission. However, it is important that these people are recognised as being disabled under the law so they get the protection they need to prevent their conditions recurring and their quality of life suffering as a result.

'Lord Hope said the case was important for people with intermittent conditions who needed protection under the law. He said that these people included those suffering from conditions such as diabetes or epilepsy whose disability is concealed from public view so long as it is controlled by medication. Their disability is insidious. The measures that are taken to treat or correct it, so long as they are effective, enable them to carry on normal day-to-day activities just like everyone else. But the disability is there nevertheless.'

The case will now return to the Northern Ireland Employment Tribunal to consider if Mrs Boyle has been subjected to unlawful discrimination based on her disability.


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Notes for Editors

1. Case summary

The facts

Mrs Boyle had been employed by SCA Packaging since 1969. In 1974 she developed throat nodules. Since an operation in 1992 to remove them she had followed a strict regime to help ensure they did not return, including resting her voice, speaking quietly and maintaining her hydration levels. The nodes did not occur after 1992. In September 2000 her employer took down a partition separating her office from the stock control room. Mrs Boyle complained that the resulting increase in noise levels would have a substantial adverse effect on her health. The company refused to reinstall the partition. In October 2001 she began proceedings under the Disability Discrimination Act alleging she was being discriminated against on the basis of her disability. In February 2002 she was made redundant.

The law

Section 1 of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 defines a disability as a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long term adverse impact on a person’s normal day to day activities.

Impairments that do not have a substantial adverse effect on normal day to day activities due to corrective measures or treatment can still be covered if the substantial adverse effects are likely to materialise were those measures or treatment to be removed.

Where an impairment ceases to have a substantial effect, it is to be treated as having that effect if it likely to recur. In this case, 'likely' was held to mean 'could well happen'.

2. The Equality and Human Rights Commission

The Commission is a statutory body established under the Equality Act 2006, which took over the responsibilities of Commission for Racial Equality, Disability Rights Commission and Equal Opportunities Commission. It is the independent advocate for equality and human rights in Britain. It aims to reduce inequality, eliminate discrimination, strengthen good relations between people, and promote and protect human rights. The Commission enforces equality legislation on age, disability, gender, race, religion or belief, sexual orientation or transgender status, and encourage compliance with the Human Rights Act. It also gives advice and guidance to businesses, the voluntary and public sectors, and to individuals.