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Sharon Coleman : Fighting for her rights

Back in January 2008 Sharon Coleman was probably the most famous carer in the UK. Her picture was on the front page of the Financial Times and she appeared on the GMTV sofa. For this carer and single mum from Bermondsey in South London it was a critical stage of her landmark legal battle to prove she had suffered discrimination because of her caring situation. Although not disabled herself Sharon argued that she suffered unfair treatment at work because she had a disabled son. Her fight would eventually lead to new rights for all carers.

Sharon's story began when her son Oliver was born with several disabilities. Oliver's trachea hadn't developed properly and was floppy causing him to stop breath

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ing at least 50 times throughout the day and night. He had a banana foot which required intensive massage and it was later discovered he had severe hearing difficulties. He needed constant checking and moving to prevent his trachea collapsing and at one point he was so ill he had to be fed by gastric tube. He was in and out of hospital for the first few months of his life.

For Sharon, the stress, coupled with the natural anxieties any new mum would have, meant this was the most traumatic time of her life and sadly her relationship with Oliver's dad broke down.

Sharon quickly discovered that there was very little support and she had to fight for any bit of information regarding his disability. She scoured the web to find out what support or piece of equipment would help her keep Oliver alive. 

"Everything has been a fight," says Sharon. "We were supposed to get a nurse once a fortnight for respite but that didn't arrive. I found Oliver a place at a lunchtime club but was asked to withdraw him as he was a 'health and safety risk', even though he was accompanied by a trained childminder. The consultant advised me that Oliver's disability was something he would eventually grow out of, if I could keep him alive. At low points I couldn't see the wood for the trees, I couldn't envisage his recovery. But during the highs I had hope that that if I could get through the difficult times Oliver could have a decent future."

Battles

As a single mother with a mortgage, Sharon couldn't afford to fall out of work, and she didn't want to survive on benefits, so she was determined to return to work. "Work lifts your confidence," says Sharon, "you meet people and you don't feel so isolated."

But it was when she returned to work that the real battles began. The first hurdle was finding child care. As Oliver had such a serious disability many child minders were too frightened to take him.

Sharon's second hurdle came when her maternity leave ended. She still hadn't found adequate child care. With Oliver's first operation looming she asked her employers if she could take four weeks unpaid parental leave which would give her time to search further for child care and be there for Oliver during his operation and recuperation. She was refused. Exhausted and feeling she had no option, Sharon was forced to use her annual leave to see Oliver through his operation.

When she finally returned to work she found things had changed. "I no longer had the same job. I was referred to as 'the floater'," says Sharon. "I was told to run errands and given tasks that would usually be carried out by a clerk, not a legal secretary." Whilst this made Sharon unhappy at least she had a job and she soon settled back into work.Sharon_Guardian_small

Flexibility

When Oliver was about two and a half, following another operation, he suffered a severe chest infection and Sharon's carefully worked out routine was once again disrupted. She asked if she could come into work five minutes later.

"I was told if I was late I would be sacked," says Sharon. "It just didn't seem fair that colleagues who didn't have disabled children were given much more flexibility." She felt she had been singled out because of Oliver.

When Oliver had another operation Sharon had to use annual leave so she could look after him. Yet when another colleague's son had his tonsils out that person was allowed to work from home for three weeks, something denied to Sharon.

Sharon applied for flexible working so she could better look after Oliver by working at home sometimes, as other members of staff were. But simply asking for it seemed to make matters worse. She was sworn at by a Partner of the firm and told 'your son is always sick'.

The stress of all this was having a bad effect on Sharon. She would get home and break down in tears. She began to feel inadequate as an employee and as a mother.

"I felt I was letting Oliver down," says Sharon, "I remember coming home and sobbing on the kitchen floor, feeling I couldn't go on, I couldn't cope with working full time and giving my son the care that he needed and deserved. That's how it was."

The final straw at work came when all employees were told the firm had to make one secretary redundant. Sharon felt the redundancy process was a farce, with certain secretaries being told they were not included in the redundancy process.

"Everyone knew they meant me," says Sharon "I was determined not to give in but some colleagues became stressed at the prospect of losing their jobs, and suggested I should be the one to take it." Sharon felt forced into taking redundancy.

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One of Sharon's friends felt she had a case for 'constructive dismissal'; where someone is forced out of a job rather than sacked. She put her in contact with Lucy McLynn, a solicitor at Bates Wells and Braithwaite, who agreed she had a case for constructive dismissal.

Lucy also suggested they could go for an unproven legal point that Sharon had suffered discrimination on the grounds of disability by association.

"I would have got more money if I had just settled for constructive dismissal. But for me it wasn't about the money. This was for Oliver," says Sharon. "I was his Mum, the only person who could care for him, and yet I felt I had let him down, he had missed hospital appointments because I knew I couldn't get time off. It was not right that I should be treated differently because my son was disabled."

Sharon's case went first to a tribunal and then to the European Court of Justice where it was given  a favourable opinion. The news made headlines across the UK.

"I cried when I heard the news," admits Sharon. "I had been so bogged down with the stress and the nastiness of it all. I was just amazed that me, a girl from Bermondsey, could affect UK law. And this is not just for me and Oliver but for all carers."

The decision of the European Court of Justice was a landmark because it established a legal principle that direct discrimination, harassment and victimisation in employment also applies to people who are associated with a disabled person by caring for them. This is now enshrined in UK law with the passing of the Equality Act in 2010, making it unlawful to directly discriminate against carers. Sharon_Times_small

Future

Oliver is now much better but he still requires extra care and can't be left on his own. Sharon is now working in a different job and in 2010 was honoured with a special recognition award by  Carers UK for her fight. 

When asked if she has a message for other carers who are facing their own battles Sharon's' message is simple, "Don't give up," she says, "If everyone affected lobbies and fights we can keep this issue in the limelight and really make a difference."

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