Disabilities and Reasonable Adjustments

An employee who is off sick for a lengthy period of time may be disabled for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010.  If this is the case the employee will be entitled to protection against discriminatory treatment and to expect the employer to make reasonable adjustments.  The Act contains a very broad definition of disability, which includes both physical and mental impairments that last, or are expected to last, 12 months or more and are substantial in terms of their effects on the individual’s day-to-day life.

A wide range of physical and mental conditions and illnesses may amount to disabilities, depending always on whether or not the effect of the condition on the person is substantial and long term.

An important point to note is that a condition may amount to a disability even if, as a result of medication or another form of support, the person experiences no adverse effects on a day-to-day basis.  The question that determines whether or not an employee is disabled is how the condition would affect the employee if he or she did not take the medication or use the support.

Employers are under a duty not to treat employees less favourably because of a disability (direct discrimination).  It is also unlawful for employers to apply a provision, criterion or practice to all employees that puts an employee with a disability at a disadvantage (indirect discrimination). Employers are also under a duty not to treat an employee unfavourably because of something arising in consequence of his or her disability.

The Equality Act 2010 requires employers to make reasonable adjustments for employees with a disability.  Deciding on the most effective adjustment should always involve the employee.  Discussion between the employee and manager can often result in appropriate changes or the identification of the most helpful equipment or software.  The employee is often best placed to know his or her own condition, so the employer should seek his or her opinion.  However, if the condition is new or fluctuating, the employee may not be knowledgeable or have all the answers.  In these circumstances, involving Occupational Health will aid the identification of support, but input from a range of specialists may be needed before the most effective solutions are found.  It would also be advisable for the manager to take into account any recommendations contained in a fit note provided by the employee’s doctor.

Reasonableness

Managers should consider a range of aspects to determine whether or not an adjustment is reasonable and proportionate, including:

  • The efficacy of the adjustment in preventing the disadvantage;
  • The practicality of the adjustment;
  • Health and safety considerations;
  • The cost of the adjustment and available resources;
  • The employee's expected length of service (e.g. employed on a permanent basis or a six-month fixed-term contract); and
  • The amount of help and support that has already been provided to the employee.

Adjustments may be agreed on a temporary or permanent basis.  Ultimately it is for the manager to determine whether a recommended adjustment is ‘reasonable’.  In more complex cases, the manager should contact the HR Business Manager or their team for advice.

Types of Adjustment

The sorts of adjustments that disabled staff need are wide-ranging and often low-cost.  For example, a change to working patterns to maximise energy levels, or supplying coloured paper to those with dyslexia cost little yet can have a great impact.  The Equality Act 2010 refers to adjustments to a provision, criterion or practice and a physical feature, and taking steps to provide an auxiliary aid, and it refers specifically to providing information in an accessible format. The following are examples of adjustments that employers might consider:

  • Changes to job duties e.g. exempting an employee with a back condition from doing heavy physical work;
  • Changes to the method of doing the job e.g. allowing an employee who cannot drive on account of a medical condition to travel on business by some other means;
  • Changes to working hours e.g. agreeing a reduction in working hours or an exemption from overtime working, allowing a later or flexible start time, or granting more frequent or longer rest breaks;
  • A transfer to a different workplace e.g. moving someone with limited mobility to a ground floor location or allowing partial homeworking;
  • Adjustments to procedural requirements e.g. allowing an employee who has returned after a period of sickness absence to take paid time off work to attend regular medical appointments, physiotherapy or rehabilitation;
  • Additional or tailored training, coaching, mentoring or supervision e.g. if the employee is moved to new job duties as a result of partial incapacity;
  • Modification of premises e.g. widening a doorway or relocating door handles or shelves if the employee has difficulty reaching them;
  • Provision of an auxiliary aid e.g. changing a key pad door entry system to a card swipe system where a blind employee is unable to use it;
  • Modification of information e.g. supplying documents in a large font where an employee is visually impaired; and/or
  • Redeployment support e.g. to a suitable available vacancy (although the employee's express consent would be required).

Reviewing Adjustments

The manager should undertake regular reviews of reasonable adjustment provisions to make sure that the support provided is still the most appropriate for the employee's condition.  Appraisals, regular one-to-one reviews and return to work discussions after sickness or disability-related absence are useful points to review arrangements.  This ensures that the employee is working to the best of his or her ability and enables the University to demonstrate its commitment to inclusion.

Business changes may necessitate alterations to the adjustments in place.  For example, an Institution may no longer be able to accommodate a particular working pattern.  Before altering or removing an adjustment, the manager should have a sensitively managed meeting with the employee to explore the impact of any proposed change and the options available.

Record of Adjustments

The manager should maintain a written record of discussions about reasonable adjustments and the resulting support put in place for a disabled employee.  The record can also be used to record any additional provisions that have been agreed.  For example, who to contact if the employee is not at work and has not followed the Sickness Absence Reporting Procedure.

The process of completing such a record facilitates an open and thorough conversation between the manager and employee, lessens the time taken to review reasonable adjustments and acts as a guide should the employee be assigned a new manager.  This eliminates the risk of the University taking an inconsistent approach, where one manager supports an adjustment and another takes a different view.  This approach also helps to ensure that the employee feels that he or she is being listened to.  It can be very demoralising for an employee to have to repeat him- or herself several times.  Managers should, however, maintain the confidentiality of such records, as with any other HR-related information.

External Support

External support is often available to help with the cost and supply of reasonable adjustments, via government schemes such as Access to Work.  These schemes can contribute towards the cost of equipment, business-related travel (e.g. taxis to and from work), personal assistants who could provide physical assistance to an employee (e.g. getting to and from work); and co-workers who could assist an employee with the elements of the role that the employee finds difficult because of his or her disability.