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Avoiding accusations of discrimination

Discrimination is based on treating people unfairly because they are perceived to be different either from yourself or from other people that you are dealing with. Such unfair discrimination arises as a result of unfair treatment or disadvantage (a ‘detriment’, to use the legal term) and is experienced by a person because of an actual or perceived difference. Some people oversimplify the situation and assume that the way to avoid discrimination is to treat everybody the same. However, in many circumstances, this in itself can lead to unfair discrimination, as it means people with different needs are not being treated fairly. The guiding principle should be fairness rather than sameness. For example, if members of an ethnic minority group have particular cultural needs or religious requirements and you treat them exactly the same as the white majority who have no such needs, then it is likely that you will be discriminating unfairly against people on the grounds of their ethnicity. You may therefore be leaving yourself open to a charge of racism. One significant problem is that some organisations become very defensive around these issues and are reluctant to discuss or debate them openly. This can be a serious barrier to learning, development and progress – defensiveness is not helpful when it comes to learning. It is therefore important that you do not try to deal with these issues alone, but rather engage with your colleagues in trying to develop a team or collective response to these complex issues. A working environment where people are too anxious to talk about equality and diversity in case they get accused of some form of discrimination is not a healthy environment to work in, and you should consider what steps you can take to try and create a more open and constructive atmosphere where there is dialogue and learning about these important issues. This will enable you to identify any issues relating to discrimination where you have learning needs. The basis of equality is respecting everyone as a unique individual worthy of being treated with dignity, regardless of their skin colour, culture, religion, gender, age, disability, sexual identity, class or other such social factor. Unfortunately, much of what we are taught as we are growing up is not consistent with this approach, and so it is very easy for us to act or speak in ways which undermine equality rather than support it. For example, we may use language which is far from respectful (many terms used to refer to people with disabilities, for example) or which reinforces discrimination (for example, forms of language which reinforce the notion that it is a ‘man’s world’). However, it is not simply a matter of language. Our actions are also important. For example, are we making sure that we do not exclude certain people because we make assumptions about them based on stereotypes or ignorance (for example, the false assumption that people with physical disabilities are also likely to have a learning disability). Above all else it is important to be open to learning, to be willing to listen to other people’s point of view and make whatever adjustments to our attitudes and behaviour that are necessary.

Dr Neil Thompson                          

Neil’s website and blog are at

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