Employers have a legal duty to make reasonable adjustments to ensure equality for disabled people in the workplace, under the Equality Act 2010. This occurs where an employee is classed as disabled under the Equality Act and is placed at a ‘substantial disadvantage’ in comparison with persons who are not disabled.
This legal duty arises when:
- the employer knows, or could be expected to know, an employee or job applicant has a disability,
- an employee or job applicant with a disability asks for adjustments,
- an employee with a disability is having difficulty with any part of their job,
- an employee’s absence record, sickness record or delay in returning to work is because of, or linked to, their disability.
The employer must make the changes if they are reasonable.
What is a disability under the Equality Act?
According to the Equality Act, a person is disabled if they have a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out daily activities.
What is considered a reasonable adjustment?
A ‘reasonable adjustment’ is some sort of change to the workplace to remove or reduce the impact of an employee’s disability so they can do their job (or a job applicant’s disability when applying for a job).
What is an appropriate adjustment will depend on the circumstances of each situation. The adjustment may be to the workplace itself, to working practices, or staff training.
In deciding what is reasonable, the employer will have to consider whether the change will eliminate or reduce any disadvantage the employee might otherwise have suffered but for the adjustment.
The employer can also consider the cost of the adjustment, any health and safety implications and how practical it is to make the adjustment.
However, it is important to note that the employer’s duty to make reasonable adjustments does not mean they have to to change the basic nature of the job for the person with the disability.
If, after considering all the above, the employer considers the adjustment not to be reasonable, they should explain their reasoning to the employee and discuss alternative options.
Examples of what may amount to reasonable adjustment
Specific examples of changing the workplace itself include alterations to buildings by:
- providing lifts,
- widening doors,
- adding ramps
- re-organising desks.
Changes to working practices, procedures and staff training could include:
- allowing a partially sighted person to bring their guide dog to work,
- providing the right type of phone for an employee who uses a hearing aid
- allowing more frequent breaks for someone with diabetes.
For someone with learning disabilities, it may be necessary to provide additional support and clearer more simpler instructions.
Adjustments for mental health disabilities
It’s important to bear in mind that reasonable adjustment provisions also apply to mental health disabilities (e.g. anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder or depression) as much as they apply to physical disabilities.
If the condition “has a long-term effect on the individual’s normal day-to-day activity,” it can be classed as a disability. However, an employee does not have to have received a formal diagnosis to be entitled to support.
Adjustments that may be necessary will depend on the circumstances, but could include:
- allowing someone with social anxiety disorder to have their own desk,
- providing extra breaks or reducing an employee’s workload to help reduce stress,
- scheduling a phased reintroduction to the office for someone recovering from trauma.
With the additional pressures on mental health brought about by the pandemic, this is likely to be an important area for employers to consider in the months ahead.
Who pays for reasonable adjustments?
The employer is responsible for paying for any reasonable adjustments. However, it’s always important to bear in mind how affordable an adjustment is. What may be a ‘reasonable expense’ for a large business with a high turnover may not be reasonable for a small business with a modest turnover.
ACAS good practice for reasonable adjustments
The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) has issued good practice guidelines on making reasonable adjustments to help employers comply with disability discrimination legislation.
The guidelines for employers begin by recommending employers check that workplace policies do not put employees with disabilities at a disadvantage. This may mean, for example, reviewing shift patterns, working hours, remote working practices, etc.
Post-Covid, this approach will be particularly important for those employees who may be regarded to be ‘more vulnerable’ due to the potential consequences and complications of infection.
Employers should also keep a clear record of adjustments that have been made. Should a change in management occur, the adjustments are less likely to be lost. These have been described as employee ‘reasonable adjustments passports’.
Reasonable adjustments post-lockdown
As a result of the coronavirus lockdown during 2020-21, the government issued guidance requesting everyone who could work from home to do so. This advice remains in force until June 2021, despite the easing of other lockdown restrictions.
However, if working from home is not possible, employers need to put measures in place to help reduce the spread of COVID-19, which do not discriminate against the needs of individual workers.
Checking the rights and responsibilities of employers and employees
If you are in any doubt about whether an employee is at a disadvantage and whether adjustments to the workplace are required, you should seek professional advice.
This important area of workplace practice is likely to be affected by the easing of lockdown restrictions, so it is vital you get it right. Please get in touch with our experienced team of employment law solicitors if you would like more information.