• Reasonable adjustments for disabled employees should be just that

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  • 6 May 2014
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Employers don’t have to choose costly options to remove barriers to employment

A recent report by the Spartacus Network of long-term sick and disabled people argues that more needs to be done to alter common workplace arrangements that act as barriers to disabled employees.

Equality laws already require employers to take reasonable steps to remove such barriers - but maybe organisations need a better understanding of what their obligations really are.

Adjustments

Although employees may be disabled for employment law purposes, they do not automatically suffer the disadvantages that trigger employer obligations. Employers should encourage an open communication culture to identify where disabled workers might be struggling. Of course, once it becomes clear that a disabled employee faces difficulties, employers are obliged to make reasonable adjustments to alleviate those problems, but the adjustments to be made should always be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

In practical terms, adjustments could include extending contractual sick pay for an employee with higher absence levels due to a disability, if this would help reduce those absences overall and improve the individual’s prospects of recovery. Or it could be that a car parking policy entitling senior staff to designated spaces right outside the office could be extended to accommodate a more junior employee with impaired mobility.

Mental health

Reasonable adjustments can be quite straight forward and relatively inexpensive where disabilities are caused by physical impairments. The position is more complex where workplace disadvantages are linked to a mental health disability.

In all cases, employers should obtain employees’ input (ideally through a face to face consultation) to identify any disadvantages they feel they are suffering, and any reasonable adjustments they think would help them specifically. External occupational health and medical practitioner advice is highly recommended too, and will often assist the decision-making process.

As part of this consultation, disabled employees might ask for more flexible working hours or to work from home. According to the Spartacus Network report, such adjustments are fundamental to supporting disabled employees and employers should consider them with an open mind.

Reasonable

It is also not uncommon for employers to be asked to transfer an employee to a different job or to meet the cost of counselling or other talk therapy. Some employers may, of course, agree to such requests but it is not compulsory to do so. The law only requires adjustments that are reasonable in the specific circumstances. Cost, disruption and practicality are the key factors when assessing reasonableness, together with the size of the organisation, the resources available to it and the nature of its activities.

Employers should take a common sense approach. Although the focus always has to be on supporting disabled employees, some high-cost adjustments that might be requested may not always be reasonable, particularly where resources are tight and where there is a low-cost alternative which is just as effective.

Alternatives

Putting this into context, if an employee reveals they are struggling to concentrate due to depression, it might be more reasonable to relieve the employee of any tasks which cause concentration difficulties rather than create a new role and recruit a replacement to fill the former one. Another alternative might be to relax any disciplinary and capability procedures in relation to under-performance or the avoidance of certain tasks. 

The important thing for employers to remember is that there is no ‘one size fits all’ answer. A proactive approach, in which the employer maintains a dialogue with the disabled employee, is always best. Employers should find out what the employee perceives the workplace barrier to be, explore effective ways to alleviate it and implement the reasonable adjustments identified promptly.

Engaging with disabled employees, and being flexible from the outset, will undoubtedly boost morale and will always end up less burdensome than a costly and time-intensive discrimination claim. It will also lead to a more productive workforce

Victoria Clark is an associate at law firm Clarion

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  • it could be useful for employers to consider providers who have specialist knowledge who can support individuals with disabilities. organisations who can support in face to face meetings