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What Is Discrimination?

As we have defined in our 2018 “Discrimination Faced by People with Disabilities in the Workplace” study, discrimination on the basis of disability may be simply defined as “unfair treatment is meted out to a person with disability which is directly or indirectly linked to the disability alone.” This usually leads to the person with a disability receiving “less favourable treatment, social respect and regard, and work opportunities compared to a non-disabled peer in the same position”.

As the definition above suggests, discrimination can be direct or indirect.

Direct Discrimination:
Direct discrimination on the basis of disability occurs when a person with a disability is treated unequally and unfavourably because of their disability.

Below are examples of direct discrimination that DPA has documented. [Names in the below accounts have been changed to protect anonymity.]

An example was described succinctly by John: “Some of them [employers and job agencies], when they heard that I have a disability, they just hang up the phone.” Another, a wheelchair user, Susan, who turned up for an interview, recounted what was said to her face before being asked to leave: “No, no, no! Sorry, sorry. I didn’t know you are like that, handicapped.”

The above accounts cases of discrimination as the individuals with disabilities were treated unequally and unfavourably solely because of their disabilities. Both John and Susan were treated unfavourably because of their disabilities – leading to unequal job opportunities to their non-disabled peers. In the case of Susan, she was explicitly informed that her disability is why she did not get even an interview with no further explanation. Her case also is an incident of verbal abuse – which is an example of discrimination.

Bernard said, from his experience, that some employment agencies arranged for workers with disabilities to be hired by companies on unfair terms, with regard to pay – “nearly half of what their own in-house employees are paid”, and workload – the disabled employees had to do more work.

In the above account, Bernard is describing what he has witnessed from many companies – that some companies pay less to disabled workers even though their disabled workers had to do just as much if not more work. Unequal pay for equal work is a form of direct discrimination.

In the examples above, the incidents of discrimination are overt and explicit – this is a trademark of direct discrimination. 

Indirect Discrimination:
Indirect discrimination on the basis of disability occurs when “laws, policies or practices appear neutral at face value but have a disproportionate negative impact on a person with a disability”.

Below are examples of indirect discrimination that DPA has documented:

Jeremy, who has a physical disability, needed a longer time to walk from the bus stop to the company premises. When he tried to ask for a slightly later starting time, which he would made up for by ending work later, his request was rejected. He was eventually terminated after coming in late for work multiple times.

The above case is an incident of indirect discrimination as the company’s rigidity of altering the start time of work disadvantages someone like Jeremy who takes longer to arrive to work, but who can still complete the tasks of that given job at the same level – offering to end work later to compensate the later start-time. The company’s policy may be applied equally, but it is unfair to disabled employees. In Jeremy’s case, the company also did not take into consideration his disability when analysing his performance – leading to his termination. In this case, the company not only indirectly discriminated through their policies and practices, but also through their performance reviews – both are cases of indirect discrimination.

Lewis prefers a quiet working environment as he has problems focussing in noisy places. But he was situated in the middle of the office and not relocated despite his request. He said: “I prefer quieter spots … Never allowed the opportunity to sit in a quiet corner. Sensory overload affected my work performance.”

Even if the company replies by noting that they are treating Lewis the way they would treat a similar request from a non-disabled person, their practice still is tantamount to a case of indirect discrimination as it disadvantages Lewis due to his disability – which affects his work performance and subsequently affecting his opportunities of advancing in employment.

Fredrick, who has a physical disability, had struggled with meeting quotas in his work. He devised a solution to address this issue, involving a different way of sending him database information. But when he proposed this to his superiors, it was rejected. He recounted with exasperation: “The [company] said, well, this is how our system works.”

Similar to the case of Jeremy, the above is an incident of indirect discrimination as the company’s policy and practices, while applied the same to persons with and without disabilities, disadvantages individuals with disabilities such as Fredrick who is capable of doing the job just as well as his non-disabled peers.

In addition to direct and indirect discrimination, discrimination be manifested through harassment and denial of reasonable accommodations.


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