Know your rights

30th May 2003 at 01:00
Legal redress is hard to come by for employees with a mental illness, but that could soon change, writes Susannah Kirkman

People with a mental illness are not offered the same legal protection against discrimination as employees with a physical disability, according to the Disability Rights Commission (DRC), which is calling for changes to the law.

Last month, a literacy worker sufferingfrom depression was awarded substantial damages after being forced to resign from her job by a manager who "harangued and bullied" her (The TES, May 2). Pauline Foley was awarded a payout from the London Borough of Enfield after an employment tribunal upheld her complaints of disability discrimination and unfair dismissal.

But Mrs Foley's case seems to be an exception. Other employees with mental health problems who have suffered discrimination face more difficulties in proving their disability to a court, says the DRC.

The Disability Discrimination Act states that employers have a duty to make "reasonable adjustments" to enable a disabled person to work effectively.

The legislation says such employees must not be treated "less favourably" than someone who is not disabled. A teacher with mental health difficulties who arrives two hours late after a panic attack should not be regarded any differently to a teacher who is late because her child is ill, for instance.

Yet the list of disabilities defined by the act seems heavily weighted towards physical and sensory problems, the DRC argues, and does not include difficulties with thinking, feeling and social interaction, which can be severely impaired by an illness such as depression.

The law also says mental health problems must be "clinically well recognised", although there is no such requirement for physical illness.

People with a mental illness often have no clear diagnosis, making it difficult to win legal redress.

The DRC would like the criteria for disability to include self-harm and an inability to communicate and interact with others. It is also recommending that the adverse effects of an impairment should have to last only six months before it qualifies as a disability, instead of the current 12 months.

Another proposed change is that people with progressive conditions, such as HIV, cancer and multiple sclerosis, should be covered by the law from the day of their diagnosis, not just when the illness begins to affect their daily activities. The commission says that, in many instances, it's the diagnosis itself that sparks stigma and discrimination.

Disability Equality: making it happen, is available from the Disability Rights Commission, tel: 08457 622633; www.drc.org.uk

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