Entering the job market can be challenging for most people, but entering the job market as a disabled person can be even harder. According to the Shaw Trust there are currently 3.5 million disabled people in employment in the UK, but over half of disabled people worry about losing their jobs due to their disability and half have been harassed or bullied about their disability.
The Equality Act 2010 defines a disability as a physical or mental impairment that has an adverse and long-term effect on a person’s ability to carry out day-to-day activities, and covers a wide spectrum of people including those who have mental health conditions, sensory impairments or learning difficulties. Not everyone who would be covered by the Equality Act’s legislation would necessarily use the term ‘disabled’ to describe themselves.
Although many employers would never knowingly discriminate against a disabled employee, there is a lack of understanding around what constitutes as a disability, or how to handle it. Many misconceptions still exist around it workplace disability, such as that accommodating disabled people is expensive, time sapping or a health and safety risk. If an employee has made you aware of their disability, you have a responsibility to ensure that you are making reasonable adjustments to ensure that they are able to carry out their duties in a way that doesn’t put them at a disadvantage to their colleagues.
Reasonable adjustments do not have to be costly or difficult to enforce. In fact, the most commonly requested adjustment is to have working hours modified or reduced, such as offering an employee the opportunity to work from home or to use flexi-time when required. Other examples of reasonable adjustments include making the building more accessible for those who have mobility problems, or providing speciality equipment such as adapted keyboards for someone who has difficulties with typing. Communication is crucial when working out adjustments to help an employee – they will have a stronger understanding of their own needs, so they will be able to advise on the best ways to support them.
However, not all employees will feel comfortable openly disclosing their disability, especially if it’s a mental illness and they are concerned about the stigma that may exist around it. If you notice a drop in an employee’s performance, don’t immediately jump to conclusions about why it could be – set up a meeting to discuss the issue. If you let them know that you will be able to offer help if they can explain why they have been performing poorly, they will be more likely to open up about any mental or physical health problems that they are facing and you can provide appropriate support.
Once you are aware of an employee’s disability, under the Equality Act it is important to ensure that they are protected from discrimination in the workplace, meaning that they shouldn’t be treated unfavourably because of it. It covers all aspects of employment, including promotions, disciplinary procedures, recruitment, training and the way that work is performed, as well as harassment or bullying related to the disability. Discrimination can also be indirect, which means that a policy, procedure or rule that applies to all workers puts a disabled person at a particular disadvantage. Fostering a culture of acceptance in the workplace where employees feel as if they can talk openly about their experiences and a zero-tolerance policy of discrimination will give people with disabilities their chance to shine.