Episode 10

February 05, 2023


Employment and Disability Discrimination w/ Gregory Burke

Hosted by

Anica Zeyen
Employment and Disability Discrimination w/ Gregory Burke
Accessibility & Me
Employment and Disability Discrimination w/ Gregory Burke

Feb 05 2023 | 00:16:32


Show Notes

OUr guest is Gregory Burke, founder of AccessAble. Gregory is a social entrepreneur and an award-winning barrister dedicated to fighting for disabled people's rights. He talks to us about employment and disabiltiy discrimantino during Covid-19. This interview was recorded in December 2021.

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Episode Transcript

Speaker 1 00:00:05 Hello and welcome to today's episode of Accessibility and Me. I'm Anica Zeyen from Royal Holloway University of London, and I co-host this podcast with Oana Branzei from Ivey Business School in Canada, and Luke Coughlin, also from Royal Holloway. Speaker 2 00:00:21 In this episode, we spoke to Dr. Gregory Burke, founder of AccessAble, a website which provides accessibility information for thousands of venues throughout the uk. He's also a barrister practicing an employment law with expertise in cases of disability discrimination in the workplace. Speaker 0 00:00:36 Gregory, Speaker 3 00:00:37 Thanks very much for joining us. Could you first tell us about your work as a social entrepreneur and what motivated you to launch Accessable? Speaker 4 00:00:44 Yeah, sure. Thanks. Thanks for inviting me on. A major problem that disabled people face is how do I know what venue or building or service is accessible to me? And when you think about it, it's a massive problem. Cause every time we go out to a powerboard, to a restaurant or to a job interview or to a college course or a hospital appointment, we have to think about access. Uh, you know, is there level access? Are there steps? How many, which side of the steps is the handrail on? How far do I have to walk? What's the transfer side for the toilet? Is there a hearing system? Is it working? What facilities are there for my systems dog? What's the lighting like if I alarm lip breath, and so on? So a lack of information can be very disabling. Um, because if you speak with disabled people, almost every one of us with a, a physical or sensory impairment has a nightmare story about access. Speaker 4 00:01:38 And it's hard to convey the skin crawling embarrassment of trying to get in somewhere, only to find at the point of entry that the venue's not accessible for you, especially if you've come with people because they're then often crossed on your behalf, or simply if you have people behind you in a queue. And everyone's heard of mansplaining, but there's ableist explaining too. I've lost count of the amount of times that non-disabled people have advised me on how I can maneuver my wheelchair to get into a particular venue or where I put my sticks or what have you. So with access able, what I did was undertake a consultation or study with over a hundred groups of disabled people. In the early ns, what came back was society in is largely inaccessible, but in a generally inaccessible society, there could be venues that are accessible to my own individual needs. So what we then did was work with over a hundred groups of, of disabled people to define and refine a survey methodology and strategy to capture a huge amount of detail about venues and services so that disabled people can decipher themselves, whether a venue suitable for their own particular requirements. And now over a hundred thousand people use Accessable every week, uh, which shows the, uh, the the need for our service. Speaker 3 00:02:55 What inspired your career change and what inspired you to train as a barrister? Speaker 4 00:03:01 Well, primarily my Christian faith would be absolutely frank. It sounds and suffered would be pious, but I can't help that. The, the basic question was how can I use my talents best to serve my community? Now, founding access able was a mammoth massive task. And when I stood down in 2012, I'd been doing it for 12 years. We were turning over around 2 million a year. We had over 280 long-term contracts. So our income needs were 50% met at the beginning of each financial year. So it was, and remains in, in very great shape. But I had done it day and night, seven days a week, 365 days a year for over a decade. And I was exhausted. And I also needed a fresh challenge. And at many Accessable events, I was asked for help by disabled people on a range of legal problems. And that was really the push that I needed to say, okay, well look, how can I help people on an individual basis? And, and that was the pushing factor. Speaker 3 00:03:56 What are some of the most common forms of disability discrimination that disabled people face in the workplace? Speaker 4 00:04:02 Well, primarily it's not having their disability recognized or the effects of their disability recognized and acted upon. And that is the root cause of many problems for disabled people in the workplace. There's a real fear among many disabled people about disclosing their disability upon application, particularly if it's mental health related. And then you find that disabilities only revealed when it absolutely has to be. And that tends to be when there's a problem at work. And the reason for that problem is in large part or holy down to the effects of the impairment, which is not being dealt with. And what we tend to be talking about here is fear of discrimination in the application process, actual discrimination in the application process, fear of discrimination upon disclosure of disability while in work, and the failure of the employer to make a reasonable adjustment. Speaker 3 00:04:54 Has the pandemic changed this in any way? And could you talk about some of the new forms of discrimination saveable workers face? Speaker 4 00:05:01 And I'm sure that the pandemic will have, um, had a, a massive impact, but the problem we face speaking now in October, 2021 is that there's a massive backlog in employment tribunal cases. So we're not able to see the trends at the moment because the cases are taking 18 months or more than two years to reach tribunal and get to the reporting stage. But the big issues are workplace safety and returning to work and ways of working. Many disabled people have needed to shield and are now being put under pressure to return to work. But it's the working environment safe, and it's not just the working environment that needs to be safe, it's the travel to work. It needs to be safe. And, you know, just last week I was going to tribunal and, uh, going by train, no one was wearing a mask. And that, that's a concern. Speaker 4 00:05:49 You know, some people, people have been put on furlough when in fact they could have worked from home, but the employer is wary of letting people work from home, uh, because they don't want to start a precedent perhaps. So you have all of these different tensions. I mean, what I found particularly striking was in the universities that many courses that had hit the two being said, no, no disabled people, you've got to come disabled students, you've gotta come to every lecture. All the lectures and seminars were suddenly put online. And what was told was impossible was actually possible. And I think that in the workplace too, there are some big advantages for being able to work from home. Uh, as long as the right equipment's provided and proper, uh, health and safety risk assessments have taken place to enable that to say, well, person to work safely from home. But what we don't want to create, also without realizing it, is a sort of a ghetto. Wet disabled people work from home and non-disabled people work in the office. What we should ideally be getting at towards is an accessible environment where people can work and feel safe. Speaker 3 00:06:51 You touched upon this with your discussion of working from home, and it's obviously an issue that disability campaigners have been pushing for, for many years. What legal rights do disabled workers have to reasonable adjustments? And is the law falling short in your opinion at the moment? Speaker 4 00:07:06 Well, the purpose of reasonable adjustments is to ensure that disabled people can access and progress in employment. It's a cornerstone of the Equality Act. And in that sense, the law isn't falling short because it does provide for that important aim. And unlike other areas of discrimination law, the duty to make reasonable adjustments requires an employer to treat a disabled person more favorably than it would treat others. So I'm quite happy with the state of the law really in that sense. It talks, the law talks about whether an employee is placed at a substantial disadvantage, but that really, it sounds like a high bar, but it's not. It's quite a, a low threshold, and it's simply more than are you placed at a disadvantage that's more than minor or trivial. In that sense, the law, certainly on reasonable adjustments is a friend to disabled people. You know, the difficulties arise when, uh, there's arguments about whether an employer knows directly or indirectly that a person working for them has a disability. Speaker 4 00:08:06 And that's a, that's a problem because of the fear of disclosing disability that we spoke about, uh, a bit earlier on. But employers can no longer hide so much behind the knowledge shield because knowledge can be imputed through, through a variety of ways. So I, I think that the, the law is, is, um, is a, is a friend to disabled people, certainly this aspect of the law is, and, you know, what rights do they have regarding disabled people? What rights do we have regarding reasonable adjustments? Well, basically it comes under three headings that if there is what's called a provision criterion or practice of P C P sounds difficult to understand. It really just means, um, basically a requirement or a policy that puts disabled people, um, at a disadvantage, which is more than minor or trivial. And then the employers got to take reasonable steps to overcome that disadvantage. Speaker 4 00:08:59 So the policy might be that toilet facilities on a particular floor are only used by senior managers, and, uh, a worker who's not a manager's got problem climbing the stairs. Well then a, a policy adjustment would be that that person can use the toilets that are, are accessible to them rather than having to, to TRAs around the, the building. The second aspect of reasonable adjustments is that if there's a physical feature which puts a disabled person at work at a substantial disadvantage, then the physical feature in question can be removed or altered or have a reasonable means of avoiding it. And that could be, for example, you might have an entrance door with FOB access and the access panel's being placed at a height that the wheelchair using employee can't reach it. And the result is that the disabled person in order to gain access, has to wait in all weathers for another employee to be coming in and out of the building. Speaker 4 00:09:54 Um, now is that a substantial disadvantage? Is it more than minor or trivial? Well, yes, from personal experience, I can absolutely tell you it is more than minor or trivial. So that, that a, a duty would then fall upon the employer to do something about it. And the third duty regards auxiliary aids, and that really means whether something can support, provides support or assistance to a disabled person. That could be a hearing loop or a sign language interpreter, something like that. Uh, but the, the law pivots on what is reasonable, and this can be, uh, quite frustrating because what's reasonable to you might not be reasonable to my mind and, and vice versa. Um, and there's no definition of reasonableness in the acts. So it comes down to the tribunal to determine, and there are no rigid solutions, but there are a list of factors which can be taken into account quite a long list. Speaker 4 00:10:41 I won't go through all of them with you, but just a couple just to pick out. So the financial and other costs, um, like disruption, a small employer turning over a a relatively small amount would not be expected to do this, to do the same as a larger employer who's got, uh, uh, more resources. But I think the, you know, the, the most important thing that for employers, any employers listening is that the, the cost of reasonable adjustments is actually in the main, really quite small. I mean, the Business Forum on, or rather the Business Disability Forum have, have got lots of good information on this, but you know, it might just be as simple as you've got glass doors and a person with a visual impairment just needs to have a sticker on the door at eye height to make sure they don't walk into it. Speaker 4 00:11:26 Why should you be bothered if you are an employer about employing disabled people? Well, if you've got 10 hours, I can go through it for you. But the, the, the basic thing is why do you want to cut yourself off from a pool of talent who sees life from a different perspective? The disabled market in this country's worth about 250 billion. If you want to access that market, you have to have some degree of understanding in it. Disabled people can help you do that. But also most disability is acquired, uh, and indeed Inq acquired between the ages of 45 and 16. Now, you don't want your workforce to be leaving you because you are not being genuinely accessible and accommodating. Um, and that's gonna be a huge loss to you, which might not sound in your balance sheet immediately, but will, uh, eventually feed down to the bottom line. Speaker 4 00:12:12 So there, there are good reasons to be an inclusive employer. Um, and there are good reasons also for disabled people to avail themselves of the Equality Act 2010, but good reasons also for the employer to view that actually this is a good thing and that a reasonable adjustments is not a ceiling. You can go beyond that. And in my own chambers, um, we are putting in a platform stair lift at the front of our Georgian building. It's called Sesame Steps, which is costing in a very significant amount of money, but we want everybody who comes to that building, whether they're a barrister, a member of, um, our administrative support team, a solicitor, and most importantly of all a client to be able to go in and outta the building with dignity. And that's important to us. That's what our values are. So there are, there are good reasons to embrace the law. The law as it stand is, uh, mostly helpful, I think, but rather than seeing it as burdensome, employers should see it as an opportunity. Speaker 3 00:13:14 In your opinion, is the representation of disabled people improving within the legal profession itself? Speaker 4 00:13:19 It's certainly becoming more high profile. There's a general push the legal profession to become more inclusive generally of all of the protected characteristics. The, I'm, I'm sitting on the bar standards boards committee looking at how we can improve disabled people's representation. So I think there is change coming, certainly in my branch of the profession as a barrister. Chambers need to do a lot more to publicize what their access is like into their chambers and also undertake disability awareness training and not think that all disabled people are wheelchair users. Wheelchair users are very important to constituent to disabled people, but we are not the sum of disabled people. And disability is very rich, it's diverse and to be able to understand it and properly cater for it so that you can recruit barristers and retain barristers. Um, and also, uh, what is, um, you know, 19th century called staff? Um, I hate using that expression, but you know, I mean Clarks, um, marketing colleagues, uh, reception colleagues, uh, practice managers, um, you know, they could equally have a disability or require a disability. Um, and, uh, you know, we want to have a diverse profe profession because we will serve our society for the better because of it. Speaker 3 00:14:36 Could you talk about your role mentoring the next generation of disabled barristers? Speaker 4 00:14:41 Yeah, sure. I'm, I'm always on the lookout for anybody who has a disability is interested in coming to do a mini pupillage, which that tends to be a 2, 3, 4, 5 day, um, work placement with a barrister. And you come and you have a look at the papers that I'm working on, and if I'm in tribunal or court, you'll come along to that and then we can have a chat about it afterwards. And you can come round, have a look round chambers and get a feel for whether you think that this is a career that you might like to do. And if you decide after doing it that, no thanks, that's the last thing I wanna do. Well then that's also a good result because you've, you saved yourself an absolute ton of money. But in terms of the training, but if you, if you have decided that is something I'd like to do, then um, by all means get in touch. Speaker 4 00:15:24 I haven't done as much mentoring over the last year or so as I would like to cause the pandemic has been a big interrupter of that. But as we get, uh, back to normal, then if any, uh, disabled person listening to this would like some help, um, whether it's mini pupillage or a coffee and we can talk about, uh, what it is that you're trying to achieve or a chat on the phone or on Zoom, then uh, please get in touch, uh, because it, you know, it's not easy becoming Nebraska for anybody. Becoming a bas if you have a disability can be, uh, even more difficult for some people. And I really do view it as part of my responsibility as a brass with a disability to make sure that I'm trying to put the drawbridge down as much as possible to let um, everyone else come on board. Speaker 1 00:16:17 Thank you very much for listening to today's episode of Accessibility in Me. We hope you enjoyed it and we'll tune in to our next episode. We would like to thank the British Academy for funding today's episode.

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