Eye Care and The Equality Act

Equality graphic showing a business meeting with words equality, fair and rights

Are your eye care services embracing The Equality Act? Are you doing everything you can to ensure that people with disabilities have the same access to your eye care services as people without disabilities?  What are your legal – not to mention moral – responsibilities when it comes to ensuring equality of access?

Equality legislation and The Equality Act, 2010

If you’re unsure exactly what your responsibilities are in this area, then a great place to start finding out is The Equality Act 2010 website. This statutory legislation states that no individual should be discriminated against because they have a disability, either physical or mental, or because someone perceives them to have a disability or to be connected to someone with a disability. In short, you should not receive substantially different treatment, either in employment or in the provision of goods and services, because of a disability.

So, what does this mean in practice?

What The Equality Act boils down to in regard to disability is this: employers and providers of services have a responsibility to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to their services and premises to ensure equality of access. Now, ‘reasonable adjustments’ may sound a bit of a vague term of reference for legal statute, but its interpretation is generally little more than the application of common sense. If we look at a few typical scenarios commonly faced by people with disabilities when trying to access optical services for example, what are and aren’t ‘reasonable adjustments’ soon becomes fairly apparent. 

Time for change

How often have you, or someone you know with a disability, complained of being rushed by opticians or sales assistants into making choices of eyewear that you’re ultimately dissatisfied with, because the clinician or assistant didn’t give you the time you needed to make an appropriate choice, ask necessary questions, or didn’t take the time themselves to ask you about, or fully test, your needs and requirements?

If we think about these scenarios in terms of reasonable adjustments, it is surely not too much to ask that clinicians and sales staff take their responsibilities to clients with disabilities seriously and allow that little extra time that ensures their needs are met fully. This simple courtesy does not involve the eye care provider in any onerous additional costs, and the word of mouth advertising generated by good, thoughtful service is surely reward enough for the extra time spent, even if, by law, no reward should be required for providing equal access to their service.

Sweating the small stuff

It’s not just about taking the time to properly assess and facilitate the eye care needs of people with disabilities though. It’s also about making sure they get through your door and are diagnosed and treated for their eye conditions in the first place. And this is an instance where reasonable adjustments may mean taking the initiative in locating and defining needs, rather than simply being reactive to people with disabilities as they present at your clinic or practice.

Have you ever stopped to consider, for example, how many patients miss appointments with you because they are simply unable to read the letters you send them in the first place? In instances such as these, being seen to make reasonable adjustments could well mean taking such actions as sending large print letters to patients with more serious eye conditions (something you should perhaps be doing regardless of perceived disability). It might also mean the use of text messaging to confirm appointments, which many people with visual impairments find easier to read. Or it may mean making phone calls to book and confirm appointments with patients with very limited sight. It’s certainly not about assuming they have someone with them all the time who can read for them. When your receptionist books the appointment, they could ask the patient “Do you have access requirements we need to be aware of?” This could include large print letters, eye tests to take place on the ground floor or extra time due to a person’s needs.

Seeing beyond vision

But it is not only about considering the needs of people with visual impairments, but of all of your patients with disability issues. Have you considered, for example, what a deaf person has to go through when they want to make an appointment with your practice or clinic? Have you made the reasonable adjustments necessary for them to be able to do so? Do you have the facilities for them to text you, or to book an appointment online? Have you made arrangements for a BSL interpreter to be available, either virtually or in person, to assist them at their appointment? All these adjustments would be considered reasonable if you were ever to be forced to defend your service provision in a legal challenge.

Getting through the door

The same of course applies to patients and clients with mobility-based disabilities. It is unlikely it would ever be considered reasonable, for example, to exclude a wheelchair user from accessing your ground floor premises for want of the provision of ramped access, whether permanent or portable. The cost, certainly, for a portable ramp would be minimal. It might be considered unreasonable for a wheelchair user, on the other hand, to expect the provision of a lift where none currently exists to take them to a first and second floor premises. Whether this was considered reasonable or unreasonable might, ultimately, depend on the scale of the business and its available cash flow.

A test of equality

Finally, it is vital in terms of ‘reasonable adjustments’ that all clinics and opticians assess the accessibility and suitability of all of their testing equipment for clients with disabilities. Is all this equipment accessible to people with mobility issues? Are all testing instructions inclusive for people with hearing and visual impairment and, if not, have arrangements been made for equivalent tests that are suitable for these patients? For example, do you have a portable Snellen chart so you can test a low vision patients’ vision at whatever distance they require? Is your equipment adaptable for wheelchair users? Do you have picture cards to test vision if letters aren’t appropriate for the patient’s needs?

Listing the ways

This article represents a quick checklist of pointers to provide you with some indication of whether you, as an eye health professional, are meeting the requirements of the Equality Act 2010, when it comes to ensuring equality of access for patients with disabilities.

If you are failing to do so, you are not only failing in your moral obligations to people with disabilities, but also in your legal ones, and failure to take reasonable adjustment seriously could leave you vulnerable to court proceedings that not only leave you out of pocket, but also with a seriously damaged professional reputation. When you think about it like that, ‘reasonable adjustments’ really are just common sense.

Visualise Training and Consultancy offers a Reasonable Adjustments Health Check for organisations. To find out more, call Dan Williams on 07472305268 or email daniel@visualisetrainingandconsultancy.co.uk

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