Disability: some examples of good practice
Communication is key when it comes to disability in the workplace and making reasonable adjustments. Experience shows us that workplace problems often arise not out of bad intent but out of a failure to communicate. This is especially true of reasonable adjustments and disability at work, and there is a growing body of employment case law that highlights the importance of getting the messaging right.
Good communication is needed around disability in the workplace at the very start of the employee lifecycle. In one example, a person with a stammer applied for a job. The reasonable adjustments were made to accommodate this (being able to give written answers), but the employer failed to communicate this properly to the candidate. The company ended up in a tribunal.
So that’s the bad news. But there is plenty of good news, as well as thought leadership, around reasonable adjustments and disability, and how employers can make life easier for staff and service users to communicate their needs.
In the NHS, for instance, if you have a medical condition that means you may need to use the toilet urgently, you’ll be given a ‘no waiting’ card, so there’s no need to explain why you need to jump the queue. Likewise, if you’re reacting to medication (during cancer treatment, for example), the hospital will issue you with a card informing those around you why you’re likely to feel unwell. Transport for London have also introduced a badge for passengers that says ‘Please offer me a seat’, joining the ‘Baby on Board’ badges for those expecting.
Managing reasonable adjustments in the workplace, then, is not just a matter of technical fixes. It’s also about enabling effective communication and response.
Recently I was struck by a group act of kindness when I had a bout of sciatica. I was standing in the Tube, walking stick in hand. Somehow the person in front of me communicated what was going on to those around us and that there was a seat behind me. As a result, eight people made sure the seat was left free, and the person with the walking stick was able to sit down. In its essence, I needed a seat, but would not have been given it without a visual symbol of my need. And that’s why these cards and badges are so important, especially when you consider that the majority of disabilities are not visible. A 2018 report by the Papworth Trust, for example, showed that while there are 11.9 million disabled people in the UK, only 1.2 million use a wheelchair. Disabilities are diverse in their forms and are not always visible. That’s why communication is key when it comes to reasonable adjustments.
Reasonable adjustments passport – a really useful concept
So how can those of us working in diversity and inclusion make sure that communication is made as easy as possible for people living with disabilities?
Firstly, introduce a reasonable adjustment passport to those who would benefit from one. Ask each person to agree what he or she needs once with their manager, then write it down and take the record with them as they move from role to role through the organisation. Of course, the reasonable adjustment passport can be reviewed as necessary, but having a record makes any negotiation easier in future.
Secondly, if your organisation has a good offer in terms of reasonable adjustments, plus in-house expertise on what works, don’t hide your light under a bushel. Make it easy for staff to tell you if they have a disability, and that they know there is plenty you can do to help. What no-one wants is to end up in capability proceedings, only to then find out that the real cause of someone not being able to deliver is a disability that could easily have been managed.
Reasonable adjustments and disability in co-working spaces
The current trend for hot desking is another area where diversity teams need to have a voice. We need to find systems where someone who needs their desk set up in a particular way can always use it, or someone who has a special chair can always find it and not have to turf someone out of it. And ultimately, whatever system you come up with, everyone needs to understand it.
If you’re leading on diversity in your workplace, remember the importance of communicating to your staff how they can:
- Safely and usefully tell their manager that they have a disability.
- Easily convey the reasonable adjustments they need to be effective at work.
Levelling the playing field for those living with disabilities is vital to consider in your recruitment process. Training your team with hiring responsibilities in Recruitment and Selection can help to quash unconscious biases and increase your team’s awareness in accessibility so that the best candidate can be hired for the job. But steps must continue beyond the selection process. Making reasonable adjustments at work should be framed as an ongoing consideration for your employees to recognise so that you can build a truly inclusive culture, whether that’s ensuring that rooms booked for meetings are fully accessible or that needs for reasonable adjustments constantly changes (for instance, what adjustments you can make to support your menopausal staff). Training all staff in Diversity and Inclusion awareness or in Discrimination, Bullying and Harassment training can give your team an understanding of difference and how they can combat inequalities within the workplace.