INTERVIEW: Celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Equality Act with RNIB

In 2010 the Equality Act was enacted into law by Parliament to legally protect people against discrimination in the workplace and wider society.

Prior to the Act coming into force, there were several pieces of legislation to cover discrimination around sex, race and disability.

But, the Equality Act makes it against the law to discriminate against anyone because of: age; gender reassignment; being married or in a civil partnership; being pregnant or on maternity leave; disability; race; religion or belief; sex; and/or sexual orientation.

These are known as protected characteristics. “This means that if you experience discrimination on any of these grounds, the Equality Act can help you challenge that treatment,” explains Anita Marshall, legal rights officer for the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB).

We speak with Anita in detail about the importance of the Equality Act for the disabled community and those with a visual impairment.

Why is it so important that people know and understand what they are entitled to under the Equality Act 2010?

People with protected characteristics, including disability, may face discrimination in their everyday lives, whether that is at work, in education or when going shopping or to a restaurant.

It is important for people to know that there are laws in place to protect them, and to help enable them to live their lives in the same ways in which those without protected characteristics are able to.

It is also important that people know that they are able to seek help if they feel they have been discriminated against.

What do you wish more people with a visual impairment knew or understood about the Act?

People are not always aware that the Equality Act can protect them against discrimination in a wide range of situations, not just in goods and services, employment, education, and transport. 

The law is far-reaching, and also extends into other areas of everyday life. An example of this is websites and Apps. As these become increasingly important in our daily lives, it is vital that these are accessible for the millions of people in the UK living with sight loss. 

In the ten years since the Act was introduced, how have attitudes towards disability and visual impairments changed?

Over the last ten years there have been countless campaigns to raise public awareness of the challenges faced by those who are blind or partially sighted. The barriers faced by those with sight loss have been highlighted and this has helped to change and inform attitudes towards disability. There is now an increased awareness of the need for accessibility to be at the forefront of design, policy and practice, and disabled people are more often involved in these processes.

There is certainly more to be done, however, and now more than ever it is crucial that the needs of people with disabilities are considered as our society faces further restrictions in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

What more still needs to be done?

Unfortunately, only 1 in 4 blind and partially sighted people of working age are in employment, but with the right reasonable adjustments in place, people with sight loss can carry out many roles.

It is vital that the needs of disabled employees, customers, students and service-users are not an afterthought, and that the voices of the community are heard throughout planning and design processes so that accessibility is a key feature of our society.

In order for this to happen, Equality and Diversity training should be a priority in all businesses and organisations.

Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for people with a visual impairment to have their rights overlooked, for example, refusal to let a guide dog into a premise. How can this be detrimental for people?

When who have been refused access to a service with their guide dog contact us, they often say that the experience has knocked their confidence.

The humiliation and distress they feel means they are reluctant to try and use that service or a similar service again. This causes marginalisation and can lead to isolation.

For many blind and partially sighted people, their guide dog is their mobility aid and gives them independence, and this unlawful act can take away their independence.

Another issue that we regularly hear about is inaccessible information.

Everyone has the right to privacy. When a blind or partially sighted person is sent personal information that is not accessible, they should not have to rely on someone else reading it for them.

No one should have to share their financial or medical information with another person because a financial institution or NHS provider have failed to make a reasonable adjustment. They could be at risk of financial abuse or they may miss a vital appointment because they cannot access the document.

In what way can RNIB support people with a visual impairment if they feel their rights have been overlooked, for example in a situation detailed above?

If you feel you have been discriminated against because of your disability you can contact our Helpline on 0303 123 9999 and speak to a member of our Advice Team.

If you are able to, do this as soon as possible after the potential act of discrimination.  There is a toolkit on our website which acts as a self-help resource to enable people to understand their rights and challenge discrimination using a template letter. This can also be sent to you in your preferred format, or is available online.

We are here to assist with the complaints process and can give further advice and support from RNIB if the initial complaint does not resolve the issue.

As Brexit approaches, how, if at all, could the Equality Act change?

The Equality Act 2010 will remain law in England, Scotland and Wales; and the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 remains law in Northern Ireland. From January 2021 the British Parliament will be entitled to amend the Equality Act without regard to EU law – unless the implementation period is extended and subject to the outcome of negotiations with the EU.

The courts in the UK should continue to interpret the Equality Act in line with any decisions made by the European Court before the end of 2020.

In what way could changes to the Equality Act be detrimental to people living with a visual impairment?

At this stage we aren’t aware of specific changes that could be made. As an organisation for disabled people we would expect to be consulted on any changes and will campaign against any proposed, changes which could have a detrimental effect on blind and partially sighted people.

The right to challenge discrimination and inequality is absolutely vital.

How do you hope further awareness of visual impairments or disability are recognised in the next ten years?

In the 10 years since the Equality Act came into force there has been positive progress and a clearer protection of the rights of disabled people. However, as our environment changes, the rights of disabled people protected under law need to be adjusted to reflect this. 

An example of this is the rise in popularity of electric vehicles. In recent months there has been a lot of discussion around ‘micromobility’ vehicles, including e-scooters (electric scooters), and their legalisation for use in UK public spaces.

E-scooters are extremely difficult for blind or partially sighted people to see and hear and can cause dangerous tripping hazard when left on pavements. As this prospect gets closer to reality, we have serious concerns about the impact these vehicles will have on the safety, confidence and independence of people with sight loss.

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