What’s the problem with reasonable adjustments?

4 October 2021

Many disabled workers have difficulties getting reasonable adjustments put in place to help them do their job.

At the TUC Northern Equality Conference last weekend, we learned that a recent survey found that 

  • only 55% of those who asked their employers for reasonable adjustments during the pandemic, had them made in full.  
  • almost a third (30 %) said they didn’t get all their reasonable adjustments 
  • one in six (16 per cent) said they had none implemented. 


Sadly, these figures are not a surprise. And yet they represent a failure by companies to comply with their legal duty. So, what’s going wrong? It’s hard to imagine a similar level of non-compliance with other protected characteristics. Surely employers don’t flaunt the law quite so readily when it comes to providing parental leave, a reasonable adjustment for staff who have children. 


Why aren’t we being flexible for disabled workers? Here I offer a few thoughts on the likely causes and what employers and disabled workers might need to do to improve the situation. 


Investment, not expense 

I wonder if managers, under pressure to control costs, see reasonable adjustments as being an avoidable expense rather than an investment in their people. Devolved budgets can mean that line managers have not accounted for such expenditure. Disabled team members can be acutely aware of this and feel pressure not to burden the team. This is entirely avoidable. 


Employers should adequately plan for adjustments. A centralised budget is likely to work better and reflects the reality that what is a reasonable cost, in the eyes of an Employment Tribunal, will depend on the resources of the whole business, not the individual’s team. 


While there are many issues with the Government’s Access To Work scheme, It does at least offer some financial support to assist employers. 

HR teams and Equality specialists have key roles to play. Too often it can feel like they are ‘gatekeepers’ whose role is to stop the employee from fleecing the company. They need to spend more time putting themselves in the disabled worker’s position and help them to identify the barriers created by the role, workplace or team. They should be educating line managers in their legal duties and taking positive and proactive action to support their disabled team members. 


Plan Ahead 

Putting reasonable adjustments in place, in my experience, takes far too long. Delays in talking to the individual, procurement procedures, arguments about who is paying, all add unnecessary delays and leave the employee without the assistance they need. 

Employers need to be more proactive and plan ahead. Where new staff have declared a disability, then discussions should start straight away so that adjustments can be available, where possible, from day one. Of course, some adjustments may not become apparent until the person has started to do the job. Discussions need to continue through induction with regular reviews to check what is needed and whether the adjustments put in place are working well, or need to be adapted. 


Internal moves can be supported with a ‘disability passport’ scheme, like the type developed by the TUC and GMB.  


It’s all entirely do-able if employers give it the focus it deserves. 


Attitudes and Culture Change 

One of the most difficult barriers faced by disabled workers is the attitudes of line managers and other colleagues. This can vary from outright hostility, like bullying and harassment, to more subtle micro-aggressions and unconscious bias. 

Tackling these issues is a bigger nut to crack. Business leaders need to set the tone by ensuring policies, but more importantly practices, are visibly inclusive. I wonder if internal audit teams ever check if managers are fulfilling their legal duties. Using social model language in employee communications, providing accessible formats, and pre-empting access needs at meetings and events will all signal to staff and managers that inclusion is important. It matters. And not being inclusive needs to be unacceptable. 


The pandemic has shown us just how flexible employers can be when they need to be. Let’s hope that some lessons have been learned and that employers in our region can lead the way in creating a more inclusive employment culture. 


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