Careless I know but somehow I missed last Friday when the Single Equality Act became law, in spite of a daily scan through the BBC News, Guardian and the (shhh) Daily Mail online. I don’t know how that happened. Is it possible the media missed it too?
I have mixed views over this legislation. With my digital head I welcome the provision of accessible formats, being anticipatory, not waiting for someone to experience difficulties before instigating change. Reasonable adjustments were required where service was ‘impossible or unreasonably difficult to access’. This has changed to where service causes ‘substantial disadvantage’ and sounds the first warning bells. It implies an increase in the need to be proactive. If it wasn’t happening before, how will compliance be reinforced? If the Commission for Equality and Human Rights is to be abandoned then (quite apart from its controversial existence) who is left to take on discriminatory activity and attitudes?
I doubt the effectiveness of this extended legal protection. Digital exclusion is becoming increasingly blatant and customisation to suit individual preference more of a challenge. Take away the flexibility of digital data to adapt to the user requirements and you remove the potential power of the Internet for democratic access. History shows prohibition drives practices underground. It disguises them in imaginative formats which replicate and reinforce the continued existence of what was originally banned. So it is with discrimination. Fuelled by predjudice or unawareness, it’s not going to vanish on the strength of a single act; structural systems of inequality are too deeply buried in the social fabric. It’s nearly a decade since SENDA yet exclusive digital practices remain the norm rather than the exception. I worry this is the wrong direction; that the legislation on its own is hollow and weakened by inreasingly complex notions of discrimination as direct and indirect as well as associated or perceived. As soon as you introduce something as subjective as perception and replace ‘being treated less favourably’ with ‘being treated badly’ you problematise interpretation. Maybe, instead of penalising the behaviour, we should be addressing the fundamental reasons for the segregation of difference in the first place. Maybe this is why the act appears to have become statutory with a quiet whimper rather than a noisy bang and a clatter. Maybe it knew it was tokenism before it even arrived.