Disability Discrimination – Reasonable Adjustments by Association?

Following the landmark case of Coleman v Attridge Law, UK law recognises that disability discrimination can include direct discrimination by association.  This is a concept which means that an employee does not have to be disabled in order to bring a claim.  The concept of associative discrimination provides protection from less favourable treatment for those who associate with disabled persons.  For example, in Coleman, Ms Coleman had a disabled child. She requested flexible working so that she could care for the disabled child.  Ms Coleman’s request was declined by the employer whereas mothers of non-disabled children had previously been granted flexible working.  The employer argued that this could not amount to disability discrimination because the employee was not herself disabled.  The EAT disagreed.

The law places an obligation on employers to make reasonable adjustments for disabled employees.  How does this duty to make reasonable adjustments sit with the concept of associative discrimination?  According to the Court of Appeal, the duty to make reasonable adjustments does not extend to require an employer to make reasonable adjustments for an employee who associates with a disabled person.

In Hainsworth v Ministry of Defence, the employee was stationed with the army in Germany.  She requested a transfer to the UK so that her daughter, who suffered from a disability, could access specialist facilities.  The request was denied and the employee claimed that this amounted to a failure to make reasonable adjustments.

The Court of Appeal noted that both the Equality Act and the Equal Treatment Directive applied only to reasonable adjustments for the assistance of disabled employees or prospective employees.  Ms Hainsworth’s claim accordingly failed in that the law could not be stretched to require reasonable adjustments for those who associate with disabled persons.

Jack Boyle
Senior Solicitor – Employment Law

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