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Rights to equality in Northern Ireland

Photo: Public services have to make simple changes to what they do if this would help disabled children

In Northern Ireland, there are three key pieces of legislation that provide a wide range of important legal rights for disabled children and their families:

These laws apply to those who have a permanent disability. If your child has a temporary hearing loss, such as glue ear, the laws will only apply if the condition has lasted (or is likely to last) for 12 months or more.

Under these laws your child has the right to:

  • not be discriminated against because of their deafness
  • expect that public services (such as schools, nurseries and the NHS) will make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to how they do things to make sure deaf children can get involved
  • expect that public services will think about how they can promote equality of opportunity for deaf children, and to think about the impact that their policies, procedures and decisions have on deaf children and their families.

In England, Scotland and Wales, a different law – called the Equality Act 2010 applies. In practice, most of the laws around disabled children are similar across the UK.

Who has to follow these laws?

All public services, including the Government, and anyone who delivers a service to the public must follow these laws. This includes schools, nurseries, colleges, the NHS and shops. It also applies to employers.  

What are reasonable adjustments?

Public services have to make simple changes to what they do if this would help disabled children. For example, asking your child’s nursery to make sure they communicate with your child in the quietest room in the nursery is a relatively simple and ‘reasonable’ adjustment for them to make.

If it would be difficult or expensive for the public service to do something to support your child, this may not be seen as a reasonable adjustment.

The laws don’t say exactly what is or isn’t a reasonable adjustment. This is because what’s reasonable in one area might be unreasonable in another. For example, a very small childcare provider may find it expensive and difficult to improve the acoustics in their building. However, a secondary school with a large budget may find this easier.

What if a service won’t make reasonable adjustments?

If a service says that something wouldn’t be a reasonable adjustment, ask them to explain their reasons in writing.

You could also offer to meet with the service to discuss your ideas for reasonable adjustments and how they could be achieved. It might help to ask other professionals who are working with your child for advice on what reasonable adjustments to suggest and how they could be put into practice. For example, a Teacher of the Deaf may be able to provide advice on simple measures to improve acoustics.

If the service is arguing that something would be too expensive to provide, you could ask if they’ve explored alternative sources of funding from other public services. For example, if a small nursery doesn’t have enough funding to improve the listening environment in the school, you and/or the nursery could ask the local authority to meet the cost and take responsibility for this reasonable adjustment instead.

All public services should work together to make sure that the needs of your child are met and that any reasonable adjustments are made by the most appropriate service.

A failure to make reasonable adjustments is discrimination. See below for what to do if you think your child has been discriminated against.

What is discrimination?

Discrimination happens when your child is treated less favourably compared to a hearing child because of their deafness. For example, if a shop assistant was rude or provided poor service to your child because of their deafness, this would be discrimination. Another example would be a refusal to give a deaf young person a job or allow them to join a particular school activity simply because they were deaf.

Discrimination can sometimes be indirect – and this is against the law too. Indirect discrimination is where a public service does something in a certain way which has the unintended effect of treating deaf people unfairly.

For example, if a GP practice insists that appointments can only be made by phone because it saves them time, this might be considered to be indirect discrimination because it makes it harder for deaf people to see their GP.

More information and support

If you think you or your child have been discriminated against you can contact our Freephone Helpline or the Equality Commission Northern Ireland for advice and support on what to do next.

The Equality Commission Northern Ireland has lots more information on equality legislation, including guidance for employers, service providers and individuals.