Many disabled people were worried that the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) was too weak to make a real difference. Others worried that disabled people still faced barriers to challenging discrimination.
Lawyers Chris Benson and Catherine Casserley tell us how they worked to give the DDA more clout.
This blog is shared as part of a series of stories to celebrate the campaigners who fought for civil rights. You can find out more on our website or on social media using #DDA20.
Catherine is a barrister at Cloisters Chambers. After the DDA was passed she developed the Act in the courts and at the Disability Rights Commission.
Many disabled people had campaigned for civil rights and created the circumstances for the DDA to come into being.
Yet the majority of blind people I supported at the Royal National Institute for Blind People (RNIB) had no idea that there was a law to support them when, for example, restaurants turned them away because they had a guide dog.
Often disabled people who knew that they had rights didn’t know lawyers such as myself who were willing to take their cases forward.
It was a very exciting time – working in a new area of law which had the potential to change lives. It wasn’t an ideal piece of legislation – there were faults with it and that was the focus of the campaign work that I was involved in, to secure changes to improve it. But it provided disabled people with a tool to achieve change.
“I don’t want the money”
I represented a young man called David Allen in his case against a bank in 2009. David’s branch was inaccessible to David and all of the bank’s suggestions were impractical or just embarrassed him. We took the case to court, funded by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and the bank offered to settle for £5,000.
I talked over the offer with David because the amount was a lot of money for somebody aged sixteen. But David just asked, “if I take this, will it make a difference for other people?” and I had to tell him that no, it wouldn’t. David, who could really have benefited from that sum of money, simply replied: “in that case I don’t want the money, I want to make a difference for other people”. It was an incredibly selfless gesture from a young man and it was really inspiring.
We turned down the offer, pushed on with the case, and won – the court found that they had failed to make reasonable adjustments. The court required the branch to install a platform lift, at a cost of around £250,000. David was awarded damages of £6,500, increased to £9,000 when the bank unsuccessfully appealed. But the key thing for him was his ability to make a difference for other disabled people.
Chris is a solicitor at the firm Leigh Day. In the run-up to the passage of the DDA he was a support worker for adults with learning difficulties. After the law passed he helped develop it in the courts and at the Disability Rights Commission.
I was lucky to get a job in the late 1990s advising disabled people and bringing cases on their behalf. I worked at Salford Law Centre as one of a small group of lawyers with few resources, all working hard to obtain equality for disabled people.
The DDA was really new and most of it had not been tested. I wanted to use the law that I had campaigned for. At the time it felt that the Law Centre was pushing cases, pushing the boundaries of the law, because it was so new.
I was strongly of the view that we could push the law by requesting reasonable adjustments that may have gone slightly beyond what the law would appear to allow. Yet often they would be accepted because the service provider wouldn’t want bad publicity. No business wanted to be the first in Greater Manchester to face a disability discrimination claim.
Pushing the boundaries
It was clear that the campaign angle could be used as well as the law. Both together were powerful. Case law has extended the scope of the DDA far beyond what most people would have dreamed of when they first saw its passing.
I remember the effort of Hammersmith and Fulham Action on Disability (HAFAD) – or the ‘envelope stuffers’ of the movement.
When you got letters in Salford, hundreds of miles away from the biggest, busiest protests, you got so much inspiration.
Years later, I had the privilege of taking a case on behalf of a former stuffer experiencing discrimination. The case was a strong reminder that the campaign worked because of people doing all sorts of things like envelope stuffing, mailing out letters, keeping together a movement spread across the country.