Disrimination in the UK: The (Bald) Facts

April 29th, 2008 by

James Campbell taught art classes at Denny High School in Stirlingshire, Scotland. He filed a discrimination claim under the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA), the UK’s equivalent of our ADA. His disability? Baldness. He claimed that he had suffered from harassment at the hands of pupils because of his lack of hair.
Judge Robert Gall (we will resist the temptation to play with his name) determined that baldness was not an impairment and thus was not covered by the DDA. “If baldness was to be regarded as an impairment then perhaps a physical feature such as a big nose, big ears or being smaller than average height might of themselves be regarded as an impairment…”
Policy makers in the UK are struggling with the same issues facing the courts in this country: when does an individual qualify as disabled? Where do you draw the line? (We recently blogged the US Congress’s attempt to expand the ADA’s definition of disability.)
The DDA, originally passed in 1995, has recently undergone a major revision. The revised law provides immediate protection to anyone diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, HIV and cancer. Where the ADA would cover these illnesses only if they limited “one or more major life activities,” the DDA protection begins at the point of diagnosis. This is a very generous (and for employers, a potentially onerous) definition. The revised DDA also dropped a prior requirement that only mental illness which is “clinically well recognized” be covered. Thus employers confronting untreated stress or anxiety disorders may be subject to suits under the DDA. As difficult as it is to operate under the ADA, the DDA appears to offer even greater challenges.
The definition of “disability” is a moving target in all western countries. Employers who make facile assumptions about what may or may not be covered are vulnerable to prolonged litigation. For the moment, at least, there is a virtually universal assumption that baldness is not a disability. James Campbell was ruthlessly teased by his students. They may have aimed an occasional spitball at his shiny pate. Such actions definitely involved harassment. They should surely be universally condemned. But this harassment was not an act of discrimination. Campbell apparently was weak, but he was not disabled.