Frequently asked questions about alcohol dependence and the Equality Act

Credit: Sarah Wadd and Maureen Dutton, University of Bedfordshire

How does the Act affect the devolved nations?

The Act applies in England, Scotland and Wales. In Northern Ireland, the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 continues to apply. The Disability Discrimination Act also excludes alcohol dependence.

Why are you only talking about alcohol dependence, why not drug dependence too?

We are choosing to focus on alcohol dependence because other drug use is illegal. This means that there are legal issues in drug use which require separate examination.

What is the legal definition of ‘disability’ in the Act?

The definition of disability for the purposes of the Act is a legal definition. A person has a disability for the purposes of the Act if he or she has a physical or mental impairment and the impairment has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on his or her ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.

Is alcohol dependence a disability?

There is no doubt that some people with alcohol dependence would fall under the Act’s definition of disability. It is only the statement “addiction to alcohol, nicotine or any other substance is to be treated as not amounting to an impairment [disability] for the purposes of the Act” which appears in the secondary legislation that excludes them.

Alcohol dependence is included as a disability in discrimination law in a number of other countries including Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand.

If people met the legal definition of ‘disability’ would the protection be lifelong?

The Act doesn’t only protect people who can show they have a disability. It also protects people who are discriminated against because they had a disability in the past, even if they no longer do. This can be illustrated by the following example: Four years ago, a woman was dependent on alcohol and this had a substantial and long-term adverse effect on her ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities, so it met the Act’s definition of disability. She no longer drinks but is discriminated against because of her past alcohol dependence. She would still be entitled to the protection of the Act.

What about if a person with alcohol dependence broke the law?

It is important to remember that people who are protected from discrimination by the Act are not immune from prosecution if they commit a crime. Similarly, people dependent on alcohol could be prosecuted for anti-social behaviour or alcohol-related crime such as being drunk and disorderly in a public place (Criminal Justice Act, 1967), driving over the legal alcohol limit (The Road Safety Act, 1967) or offences where alcohol played a role such as assault or criminal damage, even if afforded protection from discrimination.

What about health and safety?

If alcohol dependence was included in the Act, health and safety would not be compromised. It is already the case that where a worker’s behaviour suggests that the use of alcohol may be affecting their capacity to work safely, such as using machines, electrical equipment or ladders, driving or operating heavy lifting equipment, the employer has a legal duty to assess the risk and take appropriate measures to eliminate or control risks, which will usually involve preventing the affected worker from continuing with work that could cause harm.

This would not change. Employers could still require that employees are not intoxicated in the workplace and would still be able to carry out alcohol screening for jobs such as train drivers, pilots and some machinery operators. Employees who are living with alcohol dependence would continue to have legal responsibilities under Health and Safety Law including taking care of their own health and safety and taking reasonable care not to put other people (fellow employees and members of the public) at risk.

What about benefits?

If alcohol dependence was included in the Act, it wouldn’t affect eligibility for financial benefits (e.g. Disability Living Allowance, Personal Independence Payment) or other help for people with disabilities (e.g. the Blue Badge Scheme to help people with disabilities park closer to their destination) because they have different ‘tests’ of what disability means.

What might reasonable adjustments look like for a person with alcohol dependence?

Work is not an option for everyone with active alcohol dependence but some people are able to stay in work. If alcohol dependence was included in the Act employers would have a duty to make reasonable adjustments for people with alcohol dependence. Most adjustments would be simple, cost nothing or be inexpensive.

They might include allowing that employee to take time off for alcohol assessment, treatment or rehabilitation, the temporary re-allocation of tasks that the employee was finding stressful or difficult or ensuring that the employee did not have to do client entertaining involving alcohol.

What if a person with alcohol dependence was not able to do a job?

If alcohol dependence was included in the Act, employers would not have to appoint or retain a person with alcohol dependence who, even with reasonable adjustments in place, was unable to carry out the essential requirements of the job.

Employers could still hold an employee to the same standards as other employees even if the unsatisfactory performance or behaviour was related to their alcohol dependence.

Would a person have to disclose their alcohol dependence to employers?

A worker may not disclose their alcohol dependence, even when it is evident that they are not coping in the workplace. In some situations, it would still be possible to proceed with an adjustment to assist the worker regardless of their non-disclosure. T

he employer could determine whether workplace adjustments can reasonably be made, based on how the worker is performing in the job without them needing to formally disclose their alcohol dependence. They could also offer the employee the choice of seeking confidential support from an Employee Assistance Program or equivalent outside professional advice.

What about discrimination in areas other than employment?

People with alcohol dependence experience discrimination in many areas of their lives and through all phases of active dependence, treatment and recovery. Here are some examples.

Lukas is refused housing from a housing association who know that he is dependent on alcohol because they assume he might be violent or engage in anti-social behaviour but there is no evidence that has been violent or anti-social in the past.

Patrick reports that he has been a victim of crime but the police decide not to investigate the alleged crime based on the belief that the allegation was unfounded because Patrick is dependent on alcohol.

Flo’s dad is dependent on alcohol and has been admitted to hospital. He showing signs of alcohol withdrawal and seems distressed. The ward staff don’t know how to how to deal with this and Flo notices they avoid interacting with his as much as possible. Flo has raised this with the staff but they don’t seem to be listening.

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