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Despite the high number of people living with disabilities in the UK, many organisations have still little experience of working with someone with a disability. Too many people just don’t know what to do when a member of staff becomes disabled. They don’t know how to work with and look after that person, or how to meet their legal obligations as an employer.

While every situation will be different, depending on the person and their disability, there are some basic guidelines that you need to follow. I want to share them with you in this post.

Without wanting to sound too obvious, the first thing that needs to done is talk to the member of staff who has become disabled. After all, it’s they who know best how the disability will affect them and their work. Their manager will need to have as many confidential, confidence building conversations as they need, about how to help them to get back to full productivity as soon as possible. Line managers should resist the urge to rush to the internet to find out as much as they can about the disability; the only thing they need to do at this stage is to ask the person with the disability what they need.

The next stage of the process is for the manager to liaise with your HR department, or an Occupational Health specialist, about any adjustments that are needed to help the disabled member of staff to perform at their best. Some of these adjustments might be visible, such as different working hours or equipment that is needed, which can cause other members of staff to start asking questions. “Why is that person coming in later than everyone else?” or “Why does she have a new chair?” Remember that line managers are not allowed to talk to other members of staff about this particular person’s disability – it is up to them to discuss it with their work colleagues, if they want.

#Tip: For SMEs that don’t have Occupational Health advisers or who can’t afford them, the Fit for Work service is a free resource. The service offers free health and work advice through its website and telephone advice line, to help employers with absence prevention. It also provides free referrals for an occupational health assessment for employees who have reached, or whose GP expects them to reach, four weeks’ sickness absence.

It’s really important that managers keep communication channels open with someone who has a disability, to make sure that future adjustments can be made if they are needed. Situations change and people adapt to living with disabilities, so managers need to remain supportive and aware of how a disabled member of staff is performing and managing.

How do managers answer questions from their staff about the visible changes to working conditions that they can see? Since managers are not allowed to discuss the details of the disability with other people, the best way to handle it is to just let them know that it’s a confidential matter that has been agreed between the line manager and the individual member of staff.

When someone at work becomes disabled, the organisation needs to assess the impact of the cost of making changes to accommodate that person and the cost of the functioning of the business. They also need to be aware of their legal obligations. However, it’s just as important that managers remember that at the end of the day, they’re dealing with a real person, who has thoughts and feelings. Talking to them about their disability is the best way to find the right solution for everyone, to make sure that they can carry on doing their best for the business.

What is a disability?

The Equality Act 2010 legally protects people from discrimination where they work, as well as in the wider society in which they live. It protects people from discrimination against them, on many grounds (such as age, sex and race), as well as disability. According to the Act, a person has a disability if they have a physical or mental impairment, and the impairment has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.

The Act states that employers are legally bound to make reasonable adjustments for employees with disabilities.  You can find out more about the Act and your legal obligations here.

#Tip: If you have a disability, remember that your employers cannot make adjustments for you until you tell them about your disability. Your boss is not a mind reader! 

What are reasonable adjustments?

The average cost of reasonable adjustments per individual is about £75. In many cases these adjustments are simple and inexpensive or even free. What may seem like little changes can have a profound impact in allowing your employees to maintain productive working lives.

Examples of possible reasonable adjustments are:

  • Providing flexible work hours or a phased return to work (flexible, part-time hours)
  • Allocating a ground floor workstation to an employee who uses a wheelchair, or providing a lift or ramp
  • Providing equipment which is suited to the individual, such as a louder phone for an employee with a hearing impairment, or a special keyboard for an employee with arthritis
  • Allowing an employee with social anxiety disorder to work at a designated desk, rather than hot-desking
  • If an employee has a particular phobia, removing such items from the work area
  • Consider job sharing to help reduce the workload.

Factors which may affect what is considered a ‘reasonable adjustment’ include:

  • the extent to which taking the step would prevent the effect in question
  • the extent to which it is practicable for the employer to make the change
  • the financial and other costs which would be incurred by the employer in making the change
  • the extent to which making the change would disrupt any of the employer’s activities
  • the extent of the employer’s financial and other resources
  • the availability to the employer of financial or other assistance with respect to making the adjustment
  • the size and type of business.

#Tip: In situations where an individual requires assistance which is beyond reasonable for the employer to provide, you may consider getting support from Access to Work. This is a government-run programme which helps disabled people to get into or retain employment. The programme provides advice and practical help in assessing the disability needs of a person in the workplace. It may offer financial support towards any costs which are beyond the reasonable adjustments that the company is obliged to provide.

If one of your members of staff has a disability and you think that you might need to make adjustments for them, do get in touch and we can talk about it. Click here to email me or call me on 07752 518 925.

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