The lack of disabled people working in the public sector has prompted the Disability Rights Commission to probe job discrimination, writes Maria Ahmed
Anecdotal evidence that disabled people are under-represented in public sector professions, including social work, because of discriminatory entry regulations has prompted the Disability Rights Commission to launch a year-long investigation.
It comes ahead of a new duty to promote disability equality on about 45,000 publicly funded organisations in the UK, which will come into force in December.
Two per cent of England's 71,000 registered social workers describe themselves as disabled, according to the General Social Care Council. There are no similar figures for disabled teachers or nurses.
A 2004 study by the DRC suggested that 11 per cent of disabled people - 790,000 - were working in the public sector, compared with 18 per cent of non-disabled people.
The DRC announced its investigation days after the government appointed Nicola Smith as the first learning difficulties "tsar" with learning difficulties. The move is seen as a message to other organisations to follow suit. But the DRC says fitness-to-practice regulations prevent other disabled people from following in Smith's footsteps.
Prospective social workers in England must be "physically and mentally fit to perform whole or part of the work", while registrant nurses are required to be of "good health and good character". Teachers must show they are physically and mentally fit to teach.
Last year, Peter Van der Gucht, an approved social worker with bipolar affective disorder, accused the GSCC of "stereotypical and outmoded views of mental health" after it tried to impose conditions on his registration.
The DRC also cites a case where a student with epilepsy was refused a place on a teaching course, and one where a person with HIV was turned down for a nursing course.
DRC chairman Bert Massie says organisations wrongly raise health and safety concerns when employing disabled people, "especially where there is a perceived risk to the public".
Other campaigners claim the problem lies in subjective interpretation of regulations.
Julian Burnell, head of public affairs at The Shaw Trust, an employment charity for disabled people, questions the nursing regulations. He asks: "They state that applicants should be of good health and good character - but what does good health constitute? The probability is that we're looking at unconscious discrimination in that most requirements will have been drafted without sufficient thought for disabled people."
Campaigners say a clearer definition is needed. Under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, "disability" covers people with long-term health conditions such as diabetes, epilepsy, cancer, HIV and multiple sclerosis from the point of diagnosis.
Susan Boddy, national employment officer for charity Mencap, says mental health problems, learning difficulties and "milder" conditions such as dyslexia are confused.
There are also claims that disabled people are pigeon-holed in work or fail to gain senior jobs. Shiraz Chikera, assistant policy adviser at the General Teaching Council, says disabled people in teaching struggle to move into leadership positions.
One study in 2002 found disabled nurses were thought of as capable of answering phones but not of working on wards.
Boddy suggests work trials should be used instead of competitive interviews, arguing they are a much better way of judging whether disabled people can do a job.
Burnell hopes the DRC's investigation, along with the duty on the public sector to promote disability equality, will provide some answers.
"This will change things by reducing the mountain that disabled people have had to climb to prove discrimination. More significantly it should change the way non-disabled public sector employers think."