Last reviewed 8 July 2016

Over 6 million people (16%) of working age in the UK are disabled or have a health condition. Stephen Flounders of System Concepts explores how employers can benefit from their skills and experience by helping them get into and stay in work.

Although Labour Force Survey statistics show that disabled people are more likely to be employed now than they were in 2002, disabled people remain significantly less likely to be in employment than non-disabled people.

The Equality Act, which came into force in 2010, provides a legal framework to effectively tackle disadvantage and discrimination. It is discrimination to treat a disabled person unfavourably because of something connected with their disability. This type of discrimination is unlawful where the employer knows, or could reasonably be expected to know, that the person has a disability.

The Equality Act 2010

A person is disabled under the Equality Act 2010 if they have a physical or mental impairment that has a “substantial” and “long-term” negative effect on their ability to do normal daily activities.

“Substantial” is obviously more than minor or trivial, eg it takes much longer than it usually would to complete a daily task like getting dressed. “Long-term” means 12 months or more, eg a breathing condition that develops as a result of a lung infection. People with progressive conditions, ie those that get worse over time, can be classed as disabled.

People diagnosed with HIV infection, cancer or multiple sclerosis automatically meet the disability definition under the Equality Act 2010 from the day they are diagnosed.

Certain conditions are not regarded as impairments under the Equality Act 2010. These include addiction to, or dependency on, nicotine, alcohol or non-prescribed drugs; seasonal rhinitis (eg hayfever) and the tendency to steal.

Effective disability management

Organisations that employ disabled people can reap a number of benefits. In particular, it can help him or her to:

  • increase the number of high-quality applicants available

  • create a workforce that reflects the diverse range of people in modern society

  • bring additional skills to the organisation that would otherwise be overlooked.

Furthermore, the benefits of retaining an experienced, skilled employee who has acquired an impairment are usually greater than recruiting and training new staff.

Equality for disabled people may mean changing the way employment is structured, removing physical barriers and/or providing extra support for a disabled worker. These are examples of reasonable adjustments.

Reasonable adjustments

The Equality Act 2010 requires employers to make reasonable adjustments to make sure disabled workers are not seriously disadvantaged when doing their jobs. Reasonable adjustments need not be costly and time-consuming, and in many cases simple adjustments will be all that is needed.

Common examples of reasonable adjustments include:

  • during the recruitment process allowing candidates with dyslexia extra time to complete tests or assessments

  • doing things differently, eg allowing someone with social anxiety disorder to have a dedicated desk instead of hot-desking

  • making physical changes, such as installing a ramp for a wheelchair user

  • letting a disabled person work somewhere specific, eg close to toilet facilities if they have Crohn’s disease

  • providing alternative equipment such as a special keyboard for people with arthritis

  • allowing employees who become disabled to make a phased return to work, including working flexible or part-time hours.

Consulting with disabled employees

The most effective way to identify what reasonable adjustments may be needed is to consult with disabled employees. The individual will most likely know what help he or she will need, so their input is essential to identify reasonable adjustments. If an employee becomes disabled then it is important to consider what needs to change to enable them to stay in work.

Consultation should not be limited to existing employees. It is also important to consult with prospective employees at the right time in the recruitment process. It is generally unlawful for an employer to ask any job applicant about a disability or his or her health until the applicant has been offered a job. It is only when an offer of employment is made that an employer can ask questions relating to disability or health. Asking the right questions and consulting with the applicant once a job offer has been made can help the employer to make reasonable adjustments in time for the applicant starting their new role.

Employers should ask existing and new employees relevant questions, including whether they need:

  • any specialist equipment at work, such as assistive technology or a specific chair

  • to be located in a particular area, such as on the ground floor of the building or close to toilets

  • any assistance leaving the building in an emergency

  • adjustments to their working hours.

Adjustments for all disabilities

There are a range of conditions that may mean a person is disabled under the Equality Act 2010. Employers should be aware of different types of disability and the type of adjustments they may need to make.

Mental health conditions

Mental health conditions cover a wide range of illnesses which can affect how people feel, think and behave. They can include depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder. Adjustments for employees with a mental health condition include:

  • offering flexible working patterns, including changes to start and finish times and adaptable break times

  • changing their working environment, eg providing a quiet place to work

  • working with them to create an action plan to help them manage their condition

  • allowing them leave to attend appointments connected with their mental health.

Hearing impairments

Someone with a hearing impairment may have partial or complete hearing loss. Their hearing impairment may be temporary or permanent and may get worse over time. Adjustments for an employee with a hearing impairment include:

  • providing information in accessible formats

  • seating an employee in a quiet area, away from distracting noises

  • using adapted telephones with adjustable volumes and lights

  • providing support to ensure they are made aware of an emergency evacuation.

Visual impairments

The Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) reported in 2013 that there were almost 80,000 registered blind and partially sighted people of working age in the UK. Modern technology and ways of working can enable blind and partially sighted people to overcome some of the barriers to work that they previously faced. Adjustments for a blind or partially sighted employee include:

  • making alterations to the working environment

  • supplying documents in audio or Braille formats

  • providing software or technology that magnifies onscreen text and images or converts text to sound.

Hidden impairments

Hidden impairments are conditions that are not apparent to others. One of the more common hidden impairments is dyslexia. Dyslexia Action reports that 1 in 10 of the UK population are estimated to have dyslexia, meaning there are more than 6.3 million people in the UK who potentially are dyslexic. Dyslexic people may struggle with tasks such as writing or structuring documents, remembering instructions and note taking. Adjustments for an employee with dyslexia include:

  • providing text-to-speech or speech-to-text software

  • allowing meetings to be recorded

  • giving instructions verbally as well as in writing

  • providing written information on coloured paper.

Employers who take steps to promote equality and manage disability at work can enable disabled people and those with health conditions, including mental health conditions, to get into and stay in work.

Disabled people have abilities, skills and experience and could bring a fresh perspective that an organisation could benefit from. Reasonable adjustments are often minor and need not be expensive. They may also benefit the existing workforce as well as encouraging many more applicants for employers to select from.