I was reading up on the law recently (as one does in their free time, of course) and something struck me as particularly concerning.
Context: I was looking to apply for my student loan for this September when I visited the Disability Allowance section. I have no physical disability (minus asthma but I don’t really consider that a disability in the scheme of things) but I wondered if suffering from mental health conditions qualified as a disability in the eyes of the law and if it did, to what extent?
Here’s the tricky part; it does. Kind of. From studying law at college, I remember how important it is to pay close attention to the use of particular diction in legislation. For example, the Equality Act 2010 specifically states that a disabled person must “have an impairment that is either physical or mental… must have adverse effects which are substantial, long-term and affects normal day-to-day activities.” If all factors stated above are met, the person is thereby classified as disabled, legally. But what is classified as an “impairment?” Can mild forms of mental health conditions still be classified as impairments?
The issue I have with this legislation is that there is an awful lot of grey area with regards to what can be classified as a disability and where the line is drawn between disability and an “impairment” which does not warrant the term disability. Usually, an act will define its own terms. For example, they’ll say something along the lines of “used in its ordinary meaning.” However, there is an element of subjectiveness and discretion in this act. Nevertheless, there is very little subjectiveness associated with physical disability. In the act, examples are given of where there should be no deliberation over disability; specifically, an obese woman who has trouble breathing because she’s overweight. The law points out that the reason behind her breathing difficulties (her obesity) should NOT be referenced. She is automatically classified as disabled, due to her breathing problems. Fair enough.
However, when looking into the mental health aspect of this law, I came across a sticking point. As per the act, in order to be classified as disabled, one’s “impairment” must affect one’s daily life as well as being a long-term condition. In particular, the act uses an example of social anxiety and panic attacks; it states that if a person’s anxiety is so severe that it warrants having to travel at certain times of the day to avoid the rush hour then yes, they are classified as disabled. However, if one doesn’t need to make changes, to their routine for example, in accordance to their condition, it is not classified as an impairment, nor is it classified as debilitating enough to warrant the term “disability.”
This stood out to be as considerably worrying due to the high percentage of people who suffer from mental health conditions in silence because they’ve known nothing else. For sufferers of severe mental health conditions, there are certain requirements within the field of treatment which contribute to their condition being a disability. But what about those who suffer from mild anxiety, mild social anxiety, mild depression etc? Where do they stand in the eyes of the law? Where do I stand, someone who is still overcoming their health condition day by day, without altering anything in their routine?
Ultimately, this all comes down to the fact that mental and physical health will never be treated equally. Ironic, considering the name of the above act. The act states that cancer and HIV are automatically classed as a disability (rightly so) thereby reiterating a distinction and distinct lack of equality between mental and physical health. There should not be any grey area in the law regarding mental health, if there is no element of subjectivity for physical disabilities. That is unfair not to mention unequal. Until schizophrenia is treated with the same importance as cancer, we will be stuck in a unequal society, trapped by the stigmatisation of mental health.