Businesses of all size and scale must ensure that they comply with the laws on equality, by ensuring that they do not have any practices which either directly or indirectly discriminate against individuals with certain characteristics. This means that they cannot offer a poorer service to anyone with such characteristics. The Equality Act 2010 has condensed and clarified all previous legislation on unlawful discrimination to delineate the following ‘protected characteristics’. It is illegal to discriminate against an individual on the basis of the one or more of the following:

  • Age
  • Disability: “A person has a disability if s/he has a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on that person’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.” (Source)
  • Gender Re-assignment
  • Marriage and Civil Partnership
  • Pregnancy and Maternity (the period after giving birth)
  • Race: This refers to “a group of people defined by their race, colour, and nationality (including citizenship) ethnic or national origins” (Source)
  • Religion and Belief (this includes belief systems such as Athiesm)
  • Sex
  • Sexual Orientation
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When providing services to potential or current employees and to customers, the services must not be restricted for anyone with such a characteristic. In addition to explicit exclusion of individuals such as banning a certain ethnic minority from accessing a service, indirect exclusion is also illegal. This means behaviour which isn’t directed against a person specifically because of a characteristic, but affects people possessing that characteristic; such as a blanket rule allowing no dogs in a shop, which would exclude disabled people who use assistance dogs, or banning all headgear, which would exclude people who wear a head covering for religious reasons. There are situations where services can be specifically offered to or restricted from specific groups, such as women-only swimming sessions at a pool, or not allowing pregnant women to partake in activities that would be dangerous for them, but these are covered by specific legislation, and businesses must be aware of the relevant laws before offering any such a restricted service. (Source)

So what does this mean for a new business? When making decisions about how your business will run, you must be aware of these characteristics to ensure that the way you run your service will not adversely affect one protected group of people, unless there are clear and justifiable reasons for this. Ensuring that disabled people are not restricted from certain services may additionally require undertaking certain measures.

[quote]“Equality law recognises that bringing about equality for disabled people may mean changing the way in which services are delivered, providing extra equipment and/or the removal of physical barriers.” (Source)[/quote]

It is required by law that for services open to the public or a section of the public, ‘reasonable adjustments’ are made so that disabled people can get the same quality service as non-disabled people, as far as is reasonably possible. These measures need to be taken anticipatorily, i.e. acting in advance of a disabled person needing the service. Although it is not possible to cater for every single variety of disability, it is important that you take measures to widen the access of your services to overcome problems for people with certain impairments. The adjustments you make are required to be ‘reasonable’, so appropriate to the size of your business and the resources available. Many of these measures are inexpensive, but are beneficial to the public image of your business as well as ensuring you remain within the law. Having a disability friendly service will benefit your business by ensuring you have a wide customer base, and positive reputation amongst the disabled community. Some examples of measures you can take to fulfill equality legislation and improve the disability access of your business are:

  • If you hold an event or have your business in a location that is open to the public, ensuring that there is adequate space for wheelchair manoeuver and that are ramps provided where necessary.
  • Offering home visits to people who are not able to access the business headquarters because of mobility issues.
  • Providing information in different formats, such as large print options for visually impaired people
  • Offering alternative options for communication with customers who due to hearing impairments may struggle with speaking on the phone, such as a live chat feature on your website.
  • Purchasing a portable induction loop so that users of hearing aids can hear staff speak more clearly.

As the size of your business increases, the types of measures you need to take will change, but it is important that from the earliest stage, you are aware of the kind of requirements the Equality Act imposes upon all businesses. Being educated about which types of acts constitute discrimination will help you and your employees to avoid accidentally excluding groups of people. The development of your business will then occur within the law and any measures you take will benefit the image of your business amongst the community. The law is detailed and complicated, but there are many resources available to ensure you stay on top of the legal requirements that face your particular type of company, for example businesses selling products, financial services providers, building and trade companies, health and sports clubs, designers and goods manufacturers. Ensure you and your employees are aware of the laws by staying informed, and the measures you take will lead to benefitting from a positive relationship with a diverse customer base.

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