Leo Mckinstry

Disability allowances

Leo McKinstry reports that even crack addicts can now claim to be disabled, and sue for compensation if they are sacked

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An insidious paradox lies at the heart of the modern thrust for disability rights. This agenda is supposed to promote equality and fair treatment, goals to which no one could object. Yet the official definition of disability is now so wide, so all-embracing, that it includes the feckless, the antisocial, even the criminal. In the madhouse of today’s Britain, even the crack addict and the violent thug can be classified as disabled under anti-discrimination regulations.

Such absurdities have arisen because of the influence of the psychiatric profession, which has decided that almost any selfish or dangerous conduct can now be categorised as mental illness. In this twisted world all concepts of morality and personal responsibility have been lost, replaced by a determination to medicalise every behavioural problem. So an ill-tempered, wilful child is said to be suffering from something called ‘Oppositional Defiant Disorder’, while the aggressive bully is treated as a victim of a ‘Bipolar Disorder’. And because all types of mental illness are regarded as a form of disability, so those with difficult personalities are treated as disabled. Those who were once regarded as immoral or destructive are now seen as worthy of our support. Any attempt to tell them to behave in a civilised manner is a form of discrimination in itself.

This is not how the general public, of course, would view the battle for the rights of the disabled. Most people would imagine that the term disability is meant to cover those suffering a permanent physical or mental impairment, such as those with multiple sclerosis, blindness, cerebral palsy or Down’s syndrome. But in reality, such conditions apply to only a small proportion of the disabled. Despite all the signs dotted around our public spaces, for instance, just 5 per cent of the disabled are actually wheelchair-bound. The term has become so loose that, according to one government survey, some 11 million people — one quarter of the adult population — could be described as disabled. This grand army of 11 million includes those with stress problems, asthma, bad livers, poor nerves, and pains in the back or neck.

The ever-expanding definition of disability is no frivolous matter. For it has allowed those with personal problems, like alcoholism or drug addiction, to wallow in a permanent sense of grievance, regarding themselves as victims of a medical condition. And, in the name of challenging discrimination, this has created limitless opportunities for the pursuit of vexatious claims against employers. Under two recent Disability Discrimination Acts, in 1995 and 2005, companies and public bodies have a duty to ‘make reasonable adjustments’ to remove any barriers to the employment of disabled people.

Though the legislation specifically states that the definition of impairments should not include a tendency to start fires, to steal, to indulge in sexual abuse, exhibitionism or voyeurism, in practice a wide range of dubious activities can be treated as symptoms of mental illness and therefore indicators of disability. In one particularly grotesque case in 2003 a certain Mr Murray applied for a job with the Citizens Advice Bureau in Newham. Now Mr Murray can hardly be described as an ideal candidate. A paranoid schizophrenic, he had once been imprisoned for stabbing a neighbour. Understandably, the CAB were reluctant to employ him in an office where he would be dealing with often vulnerable or abusive clients. So his application was turned down. But Murray claimed that his enthusiasm for knife-wielding assaults was a symptom of his mental illness. He therefore sued Newham CAB on the grounds of disability discrimination under the 1995 Act. His claim was initially rejected by an industrial tribunal, but then it was upheld by an employment appeals tribunal, which argued that the CAB had failed to carry out a proper investigation of Mr Murray’s condition and had treated him unfavourably, given that he had a recognised illness, paranoid schizophrenia, as a consequence of which he had a tendency towards violence.

Murray’s case might seem bizarre, but it is hardly unique. In another case in 2003, Annette Power, an employee at Panasonic, was sacked after prolonged absences from work because of her heavy drinking. Again, she sued, claiming that her alcoholism had been caused by clinical depression, a form of mental disability. Once more an industrial tribunal rejected her action, only for it to be upheld by the employment appeals tribunal, which ruled that the Panasonic worker had suffered discrimination because her employers had failed to take account of her long-term depression. She was awarded £5,800 in damages. This sort of nonsense is now occurring regularly. In another ludicrous instance a cocaine addict, who had been dismissed for excessive sick leave at his firm, claimed that his drug habit resulted from a depressive disorder; the EAT, always keen to heighten the climate of grievance in Britain, decided that cocaine-wreathed depression did indeed amount to a disability.

In 1997 Jacqueline Beart, an administrative officer with the prison service in Southwark, was disciplined for running a clothes business while she had been on long-term sick leave with alleged depression. She was eventually dismissed, but sued for disability discrimination and won £400,000 in compensation. The industrial tribunal found that the employers had failed Ms Beart in not offering her another job within the prison service and in not conducting properly the investigation into her business. It might be legitimately asked, however, why Ms Beart’s depression kept her from working in the prison service but not in the retail trade.

But such questions are an irrelevance for today’s discrimination industry, which takes no account of the realities of employment. ‘If you are considering dismissing an employee for alcohol or drug addiction,’ warns the law firm Shoosmiths, ‘beware of the implications of the Disability Discrimination Act. Illnesses caused by the addiction could mean the employee is protected by the DDA and they may bring damages claims if their case is not properly managed by the employer.’ As in the crusades against race and sex discrimination, the drive against disability prejudice has been hijacked by those with claims that would be seen in any normal society as entirely bogus. And in the process, the genuinely disabled lose out, since the cause of anti-discrimination is tainted.

While tens of millions of ordinary Britons work hard in their jobs, the field of employment law is now geared towards those who want to evade their responsibilities. They have a battery of legal measures to prevent their employer taking action against them, and the Disability Discrimination Act is particularly useful in this regard. As the magazine Personnel Today put it recently, ‘Stress claims will now be easier to pursue under the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA), following the government’s acceptance that people claiming to have a mental impairment should not have to show that they are suffering from a well-recognised illness.... This will inevitably lead to more people suffering from stress being able to qualify as being disabled under the DDA.’ With the government providing direct incentives for people to classify themselves as physically or mentally enfeebled, it is no wonder that — despite all the advances in healthcare in our society — the number of the disabled keeps on growing.