By: Simon B
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An important part of the Equality Act is the requirement for employers to help employees with disabilities by making “reasonable adjustments” to the workplace, aimed at removing any barriers that may place them at a substantial disadvantage in comparison to their able-bodied colleagues.
Some examples of reasonable adjustments include providing special equipment and better access to buildings, exempting disabled workers from policies they may struggle to adhere to, and offering more flexible working practices or hours.
What counts as a disability?
While some disabilities are clearly visible, others may be less noticeable. According to the Equality Act, someone is disabled if they have “a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on his ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities”.
The definition of a ‘substantial’ adverse effect is that the disability makes some everyday tasks much harder to carry out. ‘Long-term’ is defined as lasting for 12 months or more, though a condition which comes and goes will still count as a disability if it has continued to recur beyond a 12-month period and is likely to return in future.
When do I have to make adjustments?
You will be expected to consider making adjustments for an employee if you know, or should reasonably know, that they possess a disability and that it causes a substantial disadvantage for them in the workplace.
In order to decide whether something is a substantial disadvantage, you should consider how much harder a work-related activity is for the disabled employee in comparison to other employees who do not have disabilities. If the disadvantage caused is only a minor one, you will not be required to make any changes.
The law emphasises the responsibility of the employer when it comes to finding out if an employee has a disability. For example, if a disabled worker has made other employees or a third party you work with, aware of their disability, you will generally be expected to know as well.
You are also expected to investigate if you suspect that an employee who seems to be struggling in the workplace may have a disability. Carefully discuss the issues with them and talk about whether the difficulties they are having stem from a disability.
Based on your findings, you must judge for yourself what the situation is and whether reasonable adjustments are required. You should not simply wait to be asked to make changes.
You may also be responsible for making reasonable adjustments for people who are doing work for you through an agency, but the responsibility will be shared between you and the agency, and the specifics of the adjustments will determine who needs to cover the cost. For example, if a disabled agency worker requires a specialist piece of equipment which they can take with them from job to job, this will probably be the responsibility of the agency; if you need to modify your business premises to allow them access, the responsibility falls to you.
What kind of adjustments do I have to make?
Once you have identified that an employee requires adjustments to be made to cater for their disability, you should look into what changes you can make to reduce or remove the disadvantage.
The best approach is to consult with the employee and ask them what you can do to help. However, if they cannot think of any suitable changes, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give the issue further consideration. On the other hand, you are also not under any obligation to do exactly what they propose – only what is reasonable.
What counts as “reasonable” depends on the specific situation. You should consider the nature of the disability, as well as the necessity and practicality of any proposed changes and how far they would go towards helping the employee to overcome the disadvantage they face. The size of your business and the resources available can also be taken into account.
Reasonable adjustments fall into three categories:
- changing how you do things in the workplace (e.g. exemptions from restrictive policies)
- physically modifying the work premises (e.g. providing disabled access)
- providing equipment or assistance (e.g. specialised apparatus or more supervision)
You are only expected to provide reasonable adjustments which relate to an employee’s job or workplace. For example, if an employee needs a wheelchair to get around, you would not be expected to pay for their wheelchair, as this is not a specifically work-related requirement. However, ensuring that the office they work in has wheelchair access would be your responsibility.
If you fail to make adjustments which are reasonable, this is classed as discrimination and you could have legal action taken against you. You may also have a claim made against you if you dismiss, or refuse promotion to, an employee on the basis that they require adjustments to be made for the role.
Dealing with job applicants
As well as helping your existing disabled employees, you must ensure that job applicants with disabilities are not placed at a disadvantage when applying for a role at your company.
To this end, you are expected to make reasonable adjustments if a job applicant requests them. For example, they might ask for an application form to be supplied in Braille, or for a different approach to be taken to the interview if they have mental health issues.
There are lower expectations of what is “reasonable” when the adjustment is related to an applicant rather than an existing employee; for example, you would not be expected to substantially revamp your business premises to cater to the needs of someone who is simply coming in for an interview. You are also only required to make reasonable adjustments if they have applied, or have told you they would like to apply, for a specific role.
During recruitment, it is important to remember that you are not allowed to ask general questions about a potential employee’s health, as this could be viewed as discrimination, so do not directly ask job applicants if they are disabled.
Instead, you should ask specifically if they are able to carry out tasks required for the recruitment process. For example, if you need a potential employee to sit a written test as part of the application process, you can ask if they are able to do this and if there are any adjustments needed. Ask this question of all applicants, not just those you think may have a disability.
You are allowed to ask similar questions about the duties of the job during interviews – for example, whether an applicant is able to carry out heavy lifting if this is a requirement. However, you should always consider whether or not something is really a necessity for the role, or if it could be mitigated with reasonable adjustments.