Acting on Disability, Equality, and Autism – how does the law help?

A quick look at both the Equality Act and the Autism Act and how they support people with autism.

Most of us who work with people in any capacity will be familiar on some level with the Equality Act 2010 or the earlier Disability Discrimination Act 1995 which the Equality Act replaced.  But did you also know that there is a full piece of legislation devoted specifically to autism?  It’s the Autism Act 2009.

I am going to take a quick look at both the Equality Act and the Autism Acts to see how they help support people with autism. By the way, I am not a lawyer and this post is not intended to be a substitute for qualified advice.  It is purely some general thoughts based on questions which come up during CHP training.  Please speak to a legal professional if you need specific advice.

The Autism Act 2009

Ten years ago, the Autism Act put a new duty on government to produce and regularly review both an autism strategy, plus a set of guidelines about how local authorities should implement the strategy.

The result was two documents:

  • the NICE Guidelines: “Autism spectrum disorder in adults: diagnosis and management”

The Guidelines are statutory i.e. they are law, and local authorities must implement them.  

A few years later, in 2015, the government replaced the 2010 guidance with a new set of Guidelines.  These now state that local authorities, schools, and the NHS should, among other things:

  • provide autism awareness training for all staff;
  • provide specialist autism training for key staff, such as GPs and community care assessors;
  • appoint a designated Autism Lead in their area;
  • develop a clear pathway to diagnosis and assessment for adults with autism.

In my opinion, the last one is significant as it requires the service to give details of how, where, and what is going to happen during the diagnosis process.

The 2015 guidance also included five new sections including one on ‘reasonable adjustments and equality’ which dovetails with the Equality Act which we will look at in a moment.  

So what did this all achieve?  

Well, quite a lot actually.  

Ten years ago, most councils in England didn’t have an autism diagnosis service for adults.  Now the majority of them do. Further, every council has, or should have, a named Autism Lead in its healthcare team.  It’s not perfect and we know that there are long delays in receiving an assessment or a diagnosis (on a personal level we had to wait 18 months for my son to be assessed) but it’s a huge leap forward in quite a short space of time.  

There has also been a further piece of legislation in the form of the Care Act 2014 which also requires a local authority to carry out an assessment of needs when it appears that an adult has need for care and support.  An individual may request this assessment themselves without having to go through a GP.

The Equality Act 2010

So what about the Equality Act 2010 (the “EA”)?  This Act is a very wide ranging piece of law.  It defines ‘disability’ as

a physical or mental impairment that has a ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’ negative effect on your ability to do normal daily activities.

So while autism is not automatically considered a disability in the way that e.g. cancer or blindness are (both of which are defined as such under the Act), it stands to reason that a person with ASD would usually fit the definition.  

Autism Mary Donné

The most significant aspect of this Act was that previously it had only really been government departments, local councils, etc which were obligated to make provision for people with disabilities.  The EA put the same duty on most businesses, schools, and private and community establishments. Until then, a lot of them had been able to circumvent the provisions of the old Disability Discrimination Act 1995.  In the words of a former colleague, ‘there’s more to “provision” that just allowing someone to get to the front counter with a wheelchair ramp’ and this was all the old DDA really required a business to do.   

The EA made it unlawful to discriminate, either directly or indirectly, against someone with a disability.  An example of this might be not allowing a pupil in school to use a fiddle toy e.g. fidget spinner, ear-defenders or dark glasses in class, or special computer software to assist with learning.  If the school do not allow this, and there is a no good reason for a refusal (e.g. the fiddle toy has sharp or dangerous edges which could cause injury) then the school may be in breach of the law.

Similarly, in the workplace, someone with sensory issues may require an adapted headset or ask to use the workplace canteen at a different time when it is quieter.  If there is no good reason for refusing this request, then the employer may be in breach.

We know that children with autism are three times more likely to be excluded from school than NT children, with the usual reason being physical violence.  We also know that the disruptive behaviour can be the manifestation of the student’s autism.  Excluding a child on this basis, i.e. for exhibiting disability related behaviour, could amount to disability discrimination.  A school which did this could be failing in its duty under the EA to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ for its autistic pupils.  

Under the EA a school, workplace, or public building should:

  • Be aware of the different forms of disability discrimination and their legal duties under the Equality Act 2010.
  • Understand autism and how it impacts on a person (eg sensory sensitivities, anxiety).
  • Be sympathetic to a person acting in a certain way and provide where possible support.

Fewer than 17% of adults with autism are in full-time employment.  To this end the Autism Act guidelines have recognised that this is a real problem but one that, on some levels, can be helped.  Most people with autism want to study, want to work, and want to lead independent lives. The Autism Act has addressed the problem, and the Equality Act continues to provide a framework for what it is reasonable to expect councils and workplaces to provide.

In summary, we have come a long way in ten years.  There are different pieces of legislation and I hope this very brief article has helped explain what some of them try to do.   A lot has been achieved and I hope that this will continue.

If you are a practitioner or professional dealing with these pieces of legislation, I would love to hear your thoughts on them, so please do leave a comment!

Author: marydonne

Training, Coaching, and HR Specialist.

I love comments and feedback. Please share your thoughts!