Disability – We shall overcome18 October 2012
The Paralympics have been a great reminder of what can be achieved by overcoming barriers presented by disability. Sue Gilchrist looks at some examples of how employers have taken a creative approach to making reasonable adjustments in the workplace, as she celebrates some of the success stories.
We sometimes focus too much on the downside of making reasonable adjustments for employees – the cost and time concerns, for example. However, the Paralympics have brought the benefits of making reasonable adjustments into the spotlight, and shown what positive outcomes can be achieved.
Why make reasonable adjustments?
Under the Equality Act 2010 (and other provisions in Northern Ireland), employers have a duty to make reasonable adjustments where a “provision, practice, or criterion” of the employer puts a disabled employee or job applicant at a substantial disadvantage compared with others. A failure to do so will amount to disability discrimination. Therefore, employers will often make reasonable adjustments in order to comply with their legal duty not just in relation to these anti-discrimination provisions but also in accordance with their health and safety obligations.
However, there are other incentives for making reasonable adjustments besides merely avoiding liability for discrimination claims. Many employers enjoy a number of benefits from being equal-opportunities employers.
Those who make reasonable adjustments for disabled employees and promote equality of opportunity in their workforce in other ways, too, are more likely to attract and retain a wider, more diverse pool of talent and expertise.
Making reasonable adjustments makes disabled employees feel valued and supported, and this often improves morale and employee loyalty. Significantly, making reasonable adjustments will often mean that the employee is better able to carry out their work, leading to improved productivity and performance. Such improvements in performance and morale will also likely lead to a reduction in absenteeism.
Examples of reasonable adjustments
Adjustments can be wide-ranging and may involve making changes to the employer’s premises, the employee’s working arrangements, and/or providing auxiliary aids. These adjustments may be major or relatively minor, and what is “reasonable” will depend on a number of factors and vary from organisation to organisation. Below are examples of solutions that have worked for some employers.
- An unusual – perhaps even unique – example is of an employee who suffered from a disability that they prevented them from travelling in any position other than lying completely flat and very stable. The employer arranged for a vehicle to be modified in such a way that the employee was able to be driven to and from work in this position. It is unlikely that an employer would be required to make such an adjustment under the Equality Act, but it’s a great example of where an adjustment has been made for reasons other than merely satisfying the employer’s legal duty. The outcome of this adjustment was very positive – it enabled the employee to work effectively and increased the employee’s dedication and loyalty to the organisation.
- Another example is of an employer who made reasonable adjustments for a dyslexic employee. This entailed the installation of text-to-speech software, specialist spell-check packages, assistance with checking written work, and a reminder system for time-keeping. These adjustments were not disproportionately expensive, or hard to implement in practice, and they made a notable difference to the employee’s performance at work.
- For mental-health disabilities, such as depression, there are examples of adjustments such as implementing a “buddy” system, whereby the employee is assigned a mentor. Other examples include allowing the employee time off to attend treatment, or extending deadlines in instances where an employee suffering from depression experiences difficulty concentrating.
Other types of reasonable adjustments include, but are by no means limited to, the following:
- changing the work location of the employee: this may entail moving the employee to a more accessible floor, moving the employee to a different site, or allowing the employee to work from home;
- making changes to the workplace, such as installing ramps, lifts, or stair lifts;
- making changes to equipment, such as chairs, screen raisers, magnifying screens, or adapted keyboards;
- changing the way information is circulated, such as communicating in writing rather than orally, where possible, or vice versa, and using different font sizes, colours and language; and
- offering employees access to services such as occupational health and counselling.
Employers should be proactive and liaise with the employee, and with occupational health, where possible, to determine what adjustments can reasonably be made.
Employers may wish to seek support through the Government’s Access to Work scheme, which can offer advice on making reasonable adjustments, carry out workplace assessments, make recommendations and, in many instances, provide financial support to meet the costs of making reasonable adjustments. Support is also available from the Government’s Employment Service; and organisations that deal with the employee’s specific condition can provide really useful insight and guidance into what works and what doesn’t work for that condition.
However, it should be noted that there are limits to what is a “reasonable” adjustment for an employer to make. This will vary according to various factors, including: the extent to which the adjustment is practical and effective in removing the disadvantage, the financial costs involved, the alternative options and the size, nature and resources of the business.
Naturally, these are all things that an employer will need to consider in deciding what reasonable adjustments they should make, along with the benefits of making reasonable adjustments and of being an equal-opportunities employer.
While this article focuses on the positive motives for implementing reasonable adjustments, there are also the potentially negative consequences of failing to make workplace changes. These include, for example: the possibility of unlimited compensation awards at tribunal for discrimination stemming from an employee’s disability; the negative publicity and detrimental impact on employee morale that might be generated; and the management time involved in defending these types of claims.
All these considerations add to the persuasive argument in favour of making reasonable adjustments in the workplace a necessity rather than a ‘nice to have’.
Sue Gilchrist is a senior associate and professional support lawyer in Pinsent Masons’ Employment Team.
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