HL Deb 24 April 1996 vol 571 cc1135-8

2.58 p.m.

Lord Addington asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether dyslexia is classed as a disability within the meaning of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995; and, if so, what definition of dyslexia is used in this context.

The Minister of State, Department of Social Security (Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish)

My Lords, the Disability Discrimination Act defines disability as a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on a person's ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. Anyone with dyslexia meeting this definition will be protected by the provisions of the legislation. Effects which are severe or serious would clearly satisfy the requirement that effects should be at least substantial.

Lord Addington

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. I must declare an interest. I am dyslexic. Indeed, perhaps it may be said that I am one of the most "out" dyslexics in the country. Under the draft guidance inability to fill out a long and complicated form and inability to read well under pressure are not regarded as a disability. Does the Minister agree that this definition would exclude dyslexics? Dyslexics have problems with written symbols, especially under pressure and at speed. Would such an exclusion not mean that dyslexics by definition would be excluded from the benefits of the Act?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

No, my Lords, I do not believe that it would, by definition, mean that dyslexics would be excluded from the benefits of the Act. The Disability Discrimination Act gives a list of the ways in which an impairment should be taken to have an effect on normal day-to-day activities. One of those categories is memory or ability to concentrate, learn or understand. That is most likely to be the one in respect of which people with dyslexia can be brought within the definitions of the Act.

I assure the noble Lord that we shall examine the draft of the guidance which we intend to produce to ascertain whether extra guidance is needed on whether lesser degrees of dyslexia are covered. We will also look at the employment code of practice to see whether it should include examples relating to people with dyslexia.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, does the Minister agree that there is room for interpretation in the definitions of the Act which he has just given to the House? It would be quite wrong to have a rigid demarcation of what is and what is not a disability, because it is not the label that counts so much as the consequence of the condition. Does the Minister agree that the best way of dealing with it would be to include all conditions which have a disabling effect? The strict terms of the Act would prevent any abuse of that kind of provision.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, those who took an interest in the debate on the Bill will realise that it is a difficult issue. The kind of definition which the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, has just enunciated would probably encompass every one of us. It certainly encompasses me in its wider aspects. Sometimes I feel discriminated against, especially when the Opposition have a go at me.

Noble Lords


Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, we must be sure that the definitions we make of disability and the people who are encompassed by the Act are clearly seen by the public to be disabled. Otherwise, the provisions will not have the helpful effect that we all hope for for disabled people.

Lord Renwick

My Lords, I am somewhat reassured by my noble friend's second answer. I declare an interest as a former chairman and current vice-president of the British Dyslexia Association. Does the Minister agree that we ought to show consistency with the Education Act 1993? Ministers in another place stated clearly then that a special educational need, whatever the cause, should have available a special educational provision. I hope that my noble friend's second answer will be followed through.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, I assure my noble friend that we are taking the whole subject of the guidance and the employment code seriously. We understand the reliance which will be placed on them. However, with a disability of any kind there is a problem with the continuum of seriousness. Someone who is only mildly disabled, perhaps mildly deaf, is in a different position from someone who is seriously deaf. As I said in my reply to the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, we must define those who are seriously disabled and whose disablement, in the words of the Act, causes them substantial and long-term adverse effect". We must be careful that we clearly define them and do not encompass people who are not disabled in the true meaning of the word.

Lord Merlyn-Rees

My Lords, the problem is that discrimination against dyslexics applies in education as well. Will the Minister agree that dyslexic teaching is a highly specialised part of special needs teaching? When a local authority school, an opted out school or any other school declares that it provides special needs teaching, does it mean that it has properly trained teachers for dealing with children who suffer from dyslexia?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, one must differentiate between the various degrees of dyslexia. There will be children with mild dyslexia who will have little or no problem with learning in the same way, in the same class and with the same teacher as all other children. But when it comes to serious aspects of dyslexia and children who are adversely affected, special educational needs are there. The teachers who are trained to do special teaching are trained to do it across a wide range of the special difficulties which come to them. It would be totally impractical to have specialised teachers for each form of disability. Teachers trained in those specialties are trained across the broad spectrum.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the problem of the definition' of dyslexia is deep-seated? At one time the courts held that it could not be related to learning difficulty and constitute a special educational need application. Then the courts changed their view and now it can be. The definition that the Minister proposes seems eminently sound and sensible, with a substantial element attached. There is clearly a need for a code of guidance and further direction.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his comments. We are considering whether the guidance should contain some examples which would indicate borderline cases where a person may fall on one side of the line as opposed to the other. They will be difficult issues, but I assure the House that they will be treated with considerable sympathy.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, first, we thank the Minister for clarifying the position today. It is helpful and takes us forward on the issue of dyslexia. We are delighted that the Government intend that severe dyslexia should be included in the definition of disability. May I assure the Minister that the noble Lord, Lord Addington, was absolutely right that the draft guidance and code of practice do not do what the Minister would like? They must therefore be changed. As they stand, they would exclude the cases which the Minister agrees should be helped.

Secondly, what other representations have been made to the Minister about the code and the guidance? What other areas and forms of disability are inappropriately covered by the Act? In what ways is the Minister minded to change the code and the guidance?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, I am not entirely sure what the noble Baroness picked up from my answer. The definition of disability in the Disability Discrimination Act is broadly based in order to cover a whole range of disabilities. We believe that it will cover people with dyslexia if there is a substantial and long-term adverse effect on a person's ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.

In regard to the consultation exercise, over 13,000 packs on the employment code of practice and the guidance on the definitions were sent out and over 700 responses received. I cannot give any detail on the over 700 responses. However, we and the Department for Education and Employment are treating all the responses seriously, including the one from the British Dyslexia Association.