In theory, the disability passport could be a major time-saver and problem-solver for many employees. Serving both to identify adjustments an employee might need and to record adjustments that have already been agreed, the disability passport should make it easier for employees with disabilities and long-term conditions to move into – and between – jobs.
“I have had a passport for years,” one employee told us during The Great Big Workplace Adjustments Survey 2023. “[…] it is a very lengthy document. I think it is great, especially if you change roles and get a new manager.”
Disability passports also promise to help employees keep their adjustments in place when moving about within their organisations, such as through promotions or sideways moves, or when managers change. Disability passports also, potentially, do the job of explaining an employee’s needs to managers and save managers having to work out what employees might need to do their jobs.
Or, as the same employee said to us: “Do they need to read your life story? No. I give a short review of current issues and needs and let them have the full document to read should they wish.”
This employee’s experience was, in many ways, the model one for disability passports, summing up why they can be such a useful tool for disabled employees. But even then, some of the issues we see with the documents emerge. Firstly, there’s the emotional impact of revealing so much about oneself to an employer. “[They] can be very emotional to write”, the employee said. “It can feel like writing everything that is and has been wrong with you and can feel very negative. It can feel scary passing it to a new manager, hoping that they have experience of working with team members who have a disability or long-term health condition.”
You might already be able to see how these issues can be amplified if an organisation’s passport process isn’t so sound. This was sadly the experience of many other employees who spoke to us during The Great Big Workplace Adjustment Survey, and contributed to the very mixed reception disability passports received.
For many employees, the risks of sharing personal details in writing were very worrying and very real, particularly when senior leaders and other parts of organisations can see the passports on shared systems. “I am not sure I’d want a record of everything I’d asked for,” one employee said “I feel my employer could treat me differently.” This person’s views were echoed by many who felt the passports would affect their treatment – and their careers – at work.
This is if the passports are seen at all. Several said their managers didn’t look at the passports or discuss them. “It’s a case of, fill it out, send it to my manager, and then nothing is ever mentioned again,” another employee said. “This has happened with my last three managers.” A similar theme was that having a disability passport didn’t make getting adjustments any faster or more reliable.
Passports – how employers can get them right
Our findings suggest that how well passports work depends on two key themes: firstly, how inclusive the rest of the organisation is, and secondly how well passports are implemented. Passports will not help employees – and may present more barriers – if wider approaches to disability and adjustments are poor. The passports themselves are no substitute for sound adjustments processes or good manager attitudes to disabled employees. Even if an organisation is fairly inclusive on the whole, passports take resource, planning and training to properly implement. When done as a “box ticking exercise”, as some employees and managers reported they were, passports risk being ineffective or even harmful.
The overwhelming feeling from employees was that the passport is not needed if three things are in place:
- A supportive manager who knows how to support employees.
- A supportive team where everyone helps and gets on with each other.
- A cross-organisation workplace adjustments process which employees report a good experience of.
Where passports are used, the three main ways employees recommended improving their use were:
- Developing positive, stigma-free, internal campaigns about passports, what they are for, and why people may have them.
- Providing written guidance for managers on how to use them.
- Developing an accessible digital version instead of using Word documents. This would help inform employees about how their information is stored and who has access to it.
We would also recommend, based on The Great Big Workplace Adjustments Survey 2023:
- Ensuring conversations and adjustments reviews happen every time something changes for an employee, not just annually.
- Making sure that passports don’t create unnecessary extra work for disabled employees.
- Considering providing passports (or equivalent) for everyone, not just disabled employees.
About the research
The Great Big Workplace Adjustments Survey 2023 was conducted by Business Disability Forum and sponsored by Microlink. It examines the experiences of nearly 1,500 disabled employees and 400 managers around workplace adjustments and inclusion.