Interview with Bela Gor on The Great Big Workplace Adjustments Survey

23 May 2019

The following interview was conducted by Samantha Gilbert. It was originally published on LexisPSL and LexisLibrary on 13 May and is reproduced here with their kind permission.

Providing adequate workplace adjustments for disabled workers

Employment analysis: Business Disability Forum (BDF), a not-for-profit organisation promoting disability awareness at work, has published its ‘Great Big Workplace Adjustments Survey’, which raised several concerns regarding the provision of workplace adjustments for workers with disabilities. Only 19% of survey respondents with disability adjustments in place felt they had helped to remove all workplace barriers, and 28% of respondents were discouraged from requesting adjustments because they were concerned about employer perceptions or being treated differently. Bela Gor, head of legal at BDF and qualified lawyer specialising in discrimination, discusses why these percentages are occurring, and how employers can act to ensure they are providing the required adjustments to be inclusive towards disabled workers.

BDF’s survey can be found here.

Bela Gor

Why do you think only 19% of respondents with disability adjustments in place felt they had helped to remove all workplace barriers?

We asked respondents why they felt barriers had not been removed. A variety of reasons were given but two overall themes emerged—the nature of the work and the nature of the individual’s disability.

Work related barriers that remained for some even with adjustments in place included the general pace and sheer speed of the working life—but there was another interesting 12% who said, no matter what adjustments employers put in place, the nature of their condition means there will always be something that they cannot do and they will sometimes be unwell, or unable to work.

Is there any legal obligation on employers to ensure disability adjustments and how effective is this? Is there a need for any further legislation/regulation or does the solution also lie elsewhere?

The Equality Act 2010 (EqA 2010) requires employers to make reasonable adjustments:

• when a provision, criterion or practice or a physical feature of premises places a disabled person at a substantial disadvantage compared to people without that disability

• where but for an auxiliary aid or service—such as a speech to text or a sign language interpreter—the disabled person would be at a substantial disadvantage.

In practice, reasonable adjustments must be made whenever the working environment or working arrangements are a barrier to the employee doing their job satisfactorily. These provisions in EqA 2010 have been interpreted widely by the courts with employers being required to make adjustments to everything from hours worked to the distance walked to get into a building as well providing equipment.

Problems often arise, however, when a manager decides that they need ‘to know for sure’ that the employee is disabled—ie meets the definition of disability before making adjustments. This is a legally risky approach as the definition of disability is a legal definition and not a medical one. A better (and less risky) approach is to make (reasonable) adjustments for anyone who needs them in order to do a better job. However, knowledge about the law and the duty to make reasonable adjustments and the know-how on how to implement them remains low at people manager level.

In my opinion, solutions lie not in more regulation or legislation but encouraging more open conversations in the workplace about disability and long-term conditions and more visible representation of disabled people in society and the media generally.

What systems are available through which employers can measure the need for assistance and adjustments in an employee? What avenues are available to employees to request adjustments? Are they effective?

There are products that can automate the process of identifying employees’ adjustments. We get very mixed feedback on these. Some employees feel that putting an automated system in place gives the message that employers don’t really want to discuss disability or adjustments with them. We’ve also seen that some systems do not capture all of the adjustments an individual may need, particularly where adjustments for multiple conditions are needed. Many of our members are trying to encourage conversations about employee’s disability (or other) situations in the workplace rather than reduce them.

44% of respondents to the survey said they had all the adjustments they needed in their workplace. How can businesses best prepare themselves to be able to offer the required adjustments?

We are sometimes asked ‘What are common adjustments for [a specific condition or disability]?’ It’s common for organisations to get ‘hung up’ on the condition rather than the barriers the employee is experiencing. Managers need to ensure that a ‘set’ of adjustments don’t come to mind when they hear a specific condition. Assumed adjustments do not meet EqA 2010’s duty to make adjustments—if a manager gives an employee with dyslexia 25% extra time to carry out a task but hasn’t given them the speech-to-text software, they need then they haven’t removed barriers and haven’t fulfilled their duty to make reasonable adjustments. Cultural readiness to encourage conversations between employees and people managers is priceless in terms of removing barriers and building a trusting and supportive working environment.

What is the best approach for businesses with employees operating in atypical environments ie remote workers, hot-desking, travelling etc?

Our data shows an increased need for managers not just to make adjustments for ‘a condition’, but to make adjustments specific to the person and their situation—for example, not ‘adjustments for MS’, but ‘adjustments for Sue whose job is to lead research, and needs to write 5,000 words a day at her desk but needs to travel between sites two days a week’.

The formula of considering the barriers by ‘individual + tasks’ instead of pre-determining ‘condition + common adjustments for that condition’ gets workforces to a better place in terms of both inclusion and productivity. We also see from this that the legal terms ‘disability’ and ‘adjustments’ are increasingly not mentioned (and not needed) during such conversations.

Concerns over the perceptions of their employer and the reactions of colleagues were identified as some of the key reasons for not requesting additional or new adjustments. What can be done to improve this?

Research we’ve undertaken has shown that some perceptions are unevidenced and inaccurate. This does not mean it is not a fear real enough to prevent someone discussing support they need, though. Employers need to establish people strategies and an organisational culture where employees feel able to talk openly about what they need in order to do their job. This isn’t just for disabled employees but anyone who is impacted by the working environment or arrangements.

Leading from the top on disability can make a huge difference in terms of organisational culture. Through our Identity campaign we have been calling on senior business leaders to share their own experiences of disability and long-term conditions, thus encouraging a culture of openness to develop. Employees hearing managers talk about disability in a positive way can make a real difference.

 

Bela Gor is head of legal at BDF and a discrimination lawyer with over 20 years’ experience of working in the field of disability and human rights.

Interviewed by Samantha Gilbert.

The views expressed by our Legal Analysis interviewees are not necessarily those of the proprietor.