Across the UK, more than 3 million people in employment have impairments.
While some are able to overcome the barriers which may have prevented them from working, there are still too many that face discrimination in the workplace, are denied reasonable adjustments or fall foul of troublesome sickness absence policies.
Huma Munshi leads on disability policy and campaigning at the TUC. Providing advice and guidance to unions and employers around disability and mental health issues – Huma’s work aims to empower those with impairments to stay in work, get organised and seek justice when they are discriminated against.
The Equality Act 2010 says a person is disabled if they have a long-term health condition which prevents them from carrying out everyday tasks.
But as Huma points out: there is more to disability than meets the eye. “Someone who has a hidden impairment is still disabled but has a condition that is not immediately visible,” she says citing conditions like dyslexia, autism and severe and enduring mental conditions.
Huma believes people who have hidden disabilities often experience “complex and overlapping” types of discrimination and inequality.
The stigma attached to some conditions such as mental health, or the need to prove they are “really disabled” discourages many people in the workplace from disclosing their conditions to their employers and asking for adjustments in an attempt to “fit in”.
The Equalities Act was partly designed to end disability discrimination, but with so many disabled workers still being treated unfairly, is the law robust enough to deal with issues that arise in the workplace?
“That’s a really interesting and important question,” says Huma. “I think the Equality Act indicates that somebody is disabled if they can’t carry out everyday tasks, but forgets that people may have fluctuations in their conditions.”
“In regards to mental health this is particularly pertinent because someone may have depression or anxiety that may be debilitating at some point; but it’s not debilitating overall because the person may still be able to be highly and fully functional for long periods of time,” Huma explains.
Because the Equality Act is also quite specific in the type of conditions that are covered, Huma believes some people are not getting the protections they need. “There have been stories in the news recently about men affected by eating disorders. People don’t usually see something like that as a mental health condition or understand why the person might need changes or support in the workplace.”
Huma describes this sort of misunderstanding as a “two pronged issue” saying: “There is one issue with the law being not entirely effective, but there is also a wider societal issue. The stigma around some conditions makes people too ashamed to speak up and ask for changes in the workplace.”
To remove some of the stigma around mental health and other impairments, Huma says: “There is something to be said for making sure disabled workers themselves are at the forefront of any changes. Just like any other equalities movement it should be ‘nothing about us without us.’”
“Workplace stress is the number one cause of mental ill health” Huma says referring to a recent TUC health and safety audit. Adding how important it is for unions to raise awareness of the need to talk about stress with the employers, Huma says: “This includes looking at things like workloads and bullying and harassment.”
“There is a belief that there is something abnormal about someone having a mental health condition, but it’s actually usually a very normal response to huge adversity,” Huma says adding: “Unions also have a really important role in collective bargaining for disabled workers’ rights and making sure mental health is part of all policies like sickness absence, dignity at work and health and wellbeing.”
The TUC have a lot of different resources that can be accessed by unions who are trying to organise reps and disabled workers. “We often bring union reps together to talk about these types of issues and share good practice,” Huma says.
Understanding the need to make sure campaign work is “outward facing” Huma says: “We are currently doing lots of blogs, press and videos to ensure our campaign work reaches all different types of unions and wider society as well, because we are only really effective if we can spread the message out to different groups.”