The number of disabled people in employment has increased by 2.0m from 2.9m in July to September 2013 to 4.9m in July September 2022 (an increase of 70.6%). In this article we will discuss some easy steps to help employers improve the wellbeing of their disabled employees.

1. Avoid stereotypes and assumptions

Employers may be tempted to make assumptions about what a disability is and what it is not, and what adjustments should, or should not, be made. This approach would be a mistake.

Approximately 1 in 5 of the working age population of the UK are disabled. This statistic reveals that disability is not something rare or unusual, and demonstrates that all employers should be mindful of disability and the ways in which wellbeing can be improved.

Another error is assuming what is right for one person is also right for another. It is common for employers to refer to other disabled people, such as colleagues, when considering whether or not changes should be made, but this type of comparison should be avoided. Everyone is unique. The fact that an employee may have the same disability as another does not mean that the same solution will work. Everyone finds different things difficult whether they have a disability or not.

2. Be proactive

As has been said above, it is important not to make assumptions about what the ‘right thing’ to do is. That means engaging with disabled staff to identify and address potential issues swiftly. A proactive approach should be adopted throughout the employee’s employment. This is because things change over time and it is important that any actions remain relevant and useful.

An example of a situation where a proactive approach would be useful would be when the employee was expected to travel to different locations. However, the employee does not drive due to a disability. In such a situation, do not assume the role cannot be done but discuss alternatives. For example, are other forms of transport viable, could the meetings be done via zoom? If not, is funding for transport available such as via Access to Work? Similarly, if tasks such as writing and typing are slower than a non-disabled person, could that be overcome with equipment?

Having regular communication with staff, whether disabled or not, will help to effectively address such issues, which in turn is likely to improve the productivity and staff retention rates of the organisation.

3. Be consistent

It is important to treat all employees fairly. To that end, policies and procedures lay out the way in which things should be done. A common issue for employers is managing sickness absence. Some organisations may have a policy that after a certain number of absences a meeting is arranged to discuss it. Whilst it is clearly important to monitor absences it is important to focus on the reason that they occurred, rather than focusing on simply the number of absences over a particular period. For example, absence due to a disability should be excluded from absence figures where, for instance, disciplinary action is being considered or where such an absence would prevent employees from gaining a bonus that they would have otherwise been eligible for. Adopting such an approach shows that the employer is acting in a way that is fair and which does not discriminate.

Whilst this example refers to an employee with a disability, it would be sensible for employers to gain information as soon as possible to understand the reasons for absences whether the employee has a disability or not. Employers may differ in their approach, but spending time finding out the reasons for an absence and routinely carrying out back to work meetings are two examples of how that can be achieved.

4. Seek professional advice where appropriate

Employers may well have a sincere desire to help employees but there will be occasions when employers simply do not know what should be done to be useful. For example, employers may not know whether the employee has a disability or not and what an appropriate response would be in the circumstances. It is understandable that employers do not know the answers to such questions as such topics are unlikely to be their area of expertise. However, it is important that employers gain sufficient information to enable informed decision to be made regarding next steps.

That need for information reinforces the need for professional advice. Advice from sources such as occupational health will address questions that employers may have, such as what occupational health would recommend to help the employee to perform their role, or alternatively what occupational health would recommend to assist the employee to return to the workplace if the employee is absent at present.

It is ultimately for an employer to decide what should be done but, as said above, regardless of what decisions are made it is important that they are informed, considered and fair.

5. Consider reasonable adjustments

Employers have a duty to consider reasonable adjustments. What are these adjustments? When are these adjustments reasonable? Much could be written on those two questions alone. Essentially, the duty to make reasonable adjustments applies where the disabled person is put to a substantial disadvantage compared with non-disabled people. The range of potential adjustments is vast but as the name suggests the adjustment must be a reasonable one. What is important here is for employers to carefully consider any requests for reasonable adjustments, and also to carefully explore with the employee what adjustments would be appropriate in the circumstances.

6. Engage with support providers

Some employers may be concerned about having to meet the costs associated with such adjustments. Many reasonable adjustments do not have a direct financial cost. Examples may be allowing an employee to work flexibly so that it is possible to rest when needed, or perhaps working from a different location if the employee is in a wheelchair and the usual premises are inaccessible. What is and what is not a reasonable adjustment depends on the circumstances.

In additional to the examples above, there are obviously reasonable adjustments which do have a cost, such as software or equipment to address the difficulty of a slow writing or typing speed, or to assist a member of staff with a visual impairment. There are sources of support such as the Access to Work scheme that may be able to assist with the cost of reasonable adjustments.

Engaging with organisations such as Access to Work at an early stage would be a sensible step for employers as it is in the interests of all concerned for reasonable adjustments to be implemented as soon as possible to enable the employee to be able to perform their role effectively.

7. Identify potential opportunities

Unfortunately, disabled people typically earn less than their non-disabled counterparts. Why is this? There are many reasons but here is just one basic example: an employee needs to work part time due to a disability. Progression has not been possible because the post has been labelled as full time. Is it really essential that the role is full time, or could the position be effectively undertaken by using a job share? Taking steps to understand the potential obstacles to progression and exploring how they can be overcome is not only beneficial to the individual in terms of fulfilling potential, but is also of great value to the organisation in terms of staff retention, increasing diversity and enhancing the skills within the organisation.

Plotkin & Chandler works exclusively in the areas of HR and employment law and supports both individuals and employers. We offer HR consultancy and training on a range of issues relating to disabled staff. In addition, we assist clients to bring or defend Employment Tribunal claims.

David Plotkin
David Plotkin
HR & Employment Law specialist at Plotkin & Chandler

David Plotkin and Plotkin & Chandler work exclusively in the areas of HR and employment law and support both individuals and employers. Plotkin and Chandler offer HR consultancy and training on a range of issues relating to disabled staff. In addition, we assist clients to bring or defend Employment Tribunal claims.