Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Work vs. Epilepsy

In the run up to National Epilepsy Week (20–26 May), Epilepsy Action has criticised what it calls the outdated attitudes of employers who continue to discriminate against people with epilepsy.
The charity is demanding that employers ‘confront their prejudices’ as figures show that unemployment rates among people with the condition are still unacceptably high.

Epilepsy Action’s Epilepsy and Employment Survey found that 14% of respondents were unemployed but actively looking for work, significantly higher than the overall International Labour Organisation unemployment rate of 8.8% for disabled people. It also revealed that almost half (47%) of respondents felt they had been discriminated against when applying for employment. Around a third (32%) of respondents felt that they had been discriminated against by their employer because of their epilepsy within the last two and a half years.

Epilepsy is covered by the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (DDA); the Act applies even if employees are not currently having seizures or taking medication. Under the DDA discrimination can occur if: a disabled person is treated less favourably than someone else; the treatment is for a reason relating to the person’s disability; and this treatment cannot be justified.

As an employer, this means that you must not treat someone with epilepsy less favourably than another person; the only exception to this would be if there were specific health and safety reasons for the less favourable treatment.

However, despite this legal protection, 30% of respondents to the Epilepsy Action survey did not feel that the DDA had helped them to find and keep a suitable job.

Employers should be aware that under the DDA an employee has no obligation to disclose the nature of their condition to their employer. If an employee does disclose their condition, an employer cannot tell any third party unless they have the employee’s permission. In addition, if an employee does disclose their condition, employers would then need to recognise that that employee is covered by the DDA, as well as carry out a risk assessment to assess the specific risks from their condition.

According to the HSE, any potential risk to safety due to someone having seizures needs to be assessed on an individual basis, because each situation and each workplace will be different. However, Action Epilepsy suggests that a risk assessment might include asking the person the following questions:

What type(s) of seizure do you have?

How often do you have seizures?

How long do your seizures usually last?

What usually happens when you have a seizure?

How long does it usually take you to recover from a seizure?

What time of day do you usually have seizures?

Do you get a warning, also known as an ‘aura’, before you have a seizure?

The answers to these questions may help you to decide whether the person with epilepsy could do a particular job in the same way as other employees or whether some reasonable adjustment may be needed.

The charity suggests that often these adjustments can be simple modifications, like allowing an employee time to recover after seizures; allowing an employee to start and finish later than others if seizures occur a short time after waking; allowing an employee to work regular hours rather than shifts if seizures are aggravated by disrupted sleep patterns; and ensuring that all staff are educated about epilepsy.

Simon Wigglesworth, Epilepsy Action’s Deputy Chief Executive, says: "Epilepsy is an invisible condition and, as such, it is still much misunderstood. A lot of employers and their employees seem to fear the consequences of someone having a seizure at work.

However, many people with epilepsy are completely seizure-free on medication, while others have their seizures well controlled. People whose seizures are uncontrolled could still be a valuable member of staff with just a few minor adjustments in the workplace.”


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