DRC: Discriminatory health rules exclude disabled from social work

Health standards for practitioners entering social work must be scrapped as they are frequently leading to “discriminatory attitudes, policies and practices” against disabled people, the Disability Rights Commission warned today.

The watchdog also called for employers to stop questioning job applicants about their health as this was potentially discriminatory, pointing to the low representation of disabled people within social work, nursing and teaching.

The DRC blamed an unfounded association between disability, particularly mental health problems, and risk to the public, for legislation mandating UK professional regulators to operate health standards across the three professions.

Director of policy and communications Agnes Fletcher said: “We didn’t find any concrete instances of the public being put at risk due to a health condition.”

The 12-month study was inspired by cases such as that of Peter Van der Gucht, a social worker with bipolar affective disorder, who successfully challenged conditions imposed on his registration by the General Social Care Council (see box).

Under regulations, students accepted on to social work courses in England must provide “evidence of physical and mental fitness to practice as a social worker“. To register with the GSCC, practitioners must be “physically and mentally fit” to work in that part of the profession to which they are applying.

Similar standards apply in Wales, but not in Scotland, where the executive refused to include health standards.

The DRC found the standards discouraged disabled people from applying for social work courses or seeking reasonable adjustments, which they are entitled to under the Disability Discrimination Act.

The DRC said a culture existed in social care and health of seeing disabled people as service users and patients, but not professionals. Fletcher said: “There’s a huge cultural assumption around those who do and those who are done to.”

According to the GSCC’s figures, 1.95% of qualified social workers were disabled in 2006, though in Scotland the absence of health standards had not appeared to have had a marked effect on numbers, with just 2.4% of registered social workers being disabled in 2005.

Fletcher said that while the DRC had not specifically examined the impact on users of the under-representation of disabled practitioners, she said submissions to the review suggested having a disabled social worker made a “huge difference”.

Successful challenge
North Yorkshire Council social worker Peter Van der Gucht received a letter from the GSCC saying his application for registration was being questioned “because of the nature of your condition and the potential risk to yourself and service users”. In September 2005, he successfully challenged the GSCC’s decision to put conditions on his registration as a result of his diagnosis of bipolar affective disorder. The GSCC denied any discrimination, but the DRC said its use of language in its letter to Van der Gucht was “negative and exclusive”.

Further information
Maintaining Standards: Promoting Equality will be available from 14 September.

Related information
Disabled denied career in social work by discriminatory entry requirements
Checks defy service user ethos
Essential information on Workforce issues 

Have you experienced this kind of discrimination? E-mail comcare.letters@rbi.co.uk

Contact the author
Mithran Samuel

This article appeared in the 6 September issue under the headline “GSCC rules lead to discrimination”

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