Can-do attitude is key to supporting disabled employees

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Ian Streets discusses support for disabled employees

Adaptability is essential in business, and for employers that obviously extends to how they accommodate and support their staff.

People change, and so does their ability to contribute to the success of a business. The aim of most employers is to develop their workers, teach them new skills and give them greater responsibility in a wider role.

The other side of that is the importance of supporting your staff when they can no longer carry out certain duties which they may have dealt with comfortably in the past.

Such a scenario could arise from someone reducing their working hours through a lifestyle choice, in which case any difficulties would usually be anticipated and overcome. But it can also arise – suddenly or gradually – from an employee becoming disabled.

Look at your staff. At the moment there might not be any individual who has an impairment, but the numbers of disabled and non-disabled people within your workforce can change without people leaving or joining. It is entirely possible that some staff will become disabled at some point, and that you will then have to look at how they fit into the working environment.

Your approach should be to focus not on the tasks which the disabled person cannot undertake, but to concentrate on the work that they can do and to assist them with that.

Out of a disabled population of 11 million in the UK, almost one in five people have an impairment/disability and 17 per cent of them were born with their impairment. That means 83 per cent acquired their impairment during their lives.

Things can happen during a period of employment, whether it be weeks, months or years, to influence a person’s ability to do their job. It can be as sudden as a car accident or as gradual and long term as a medical condition, and it is not necessarily age-related.

As an employer you should maintain good awareness of staff, their capabilities and needs and of the fact that all of those can change. You need to be able to identify any difficulties, address them and meet the requirements of the Equality Act 2010 by making reasonable adjustments to suit the specific disabled employee. It’s about changing and adapting.

It is also important to remember that many impairments are hidden rather than obvious, and that people do not have to declare a disability when they apply for a job unless it is to make the application process itself accessible. For example a candidate may request printed material in a larger font size, but this adjustment should not influence any decision about their application.

Categories of disability include ambulant disabled, hearing impaired, visually impaired and wheelchair users – less than eight per cent of the disabled population use wheelchairs.

You might hire someone who has an impairment but not one which prevents them from doing the job – why would being a wheelchair user prevent someone from working as an accountant?

Much can depend on the culture within an organisation. If a disabled person works in an organisation that accepts diversity then they are more likely to declare an impairment. They are more likely to try and hide an impairment if they think they might be seen as a weak link.

The first thing to do is to talk to the person about their impairment, find out what they can and cannot do and discuss what adjustments can be made to enable them to do the aspects of their job that they could do before but cannot do now.

It may involve altering working hours if they have a problem using public transport at peak times. It could mean providing a ramp, built to the required standard, to improve accessibility, or it might be helpful to assign some duties to other people.

You also need to find out whether any disabled employees require their own personal emergency evacuation plan (PEEP). It should be part of the induction process to give an employee a confidential questionnaire asking if they require assistance with evacuation. Then you might meet with them and write a PEEP.

If someone acquires a permanent or temporary impairment during their employment you need to find out whether they require a PEEP and whether it is appropriate for other members of staff to be made aware of this significant change in their colleague’s circumstances.

Case Studies

Consider, as one of our clients had to do, the case of a security officer who developed a visual impairment.

The case had implications for any employees whose duties include various aspects of security – property searches, observation of people, activity and vehicles, noting appearance and distinguishing features, watching out for slips, trips and obstacles.

It could affect a security guard or a general member of staff who has been trained to evacuate colleagues, visitors and customers from the building, and it is particularly relevant to anyone who works in leisure facilities, entertainment venues, big stores, shopping centres, major public events, tourist attractions, government buildings.

The ability of the person to see, clearly and in detail, is obviously an important requirement in that role and it may be that you would have to try and assign them other duties.

It is easier to make reasonable adjustments in the case of a secretary whose role includes filing but who cannot lift boxes to place on a shelf above their head. In such circumstances you would ask someone else to help the secretary with that particular task.

It should also be straightforward to make reasonable adjustments for a receptionist who has a hearing impairment. You invest in a new phone which is compatible with their hearing aid.

The question of whether each of these individual needs a PEEP should be explored fully and carefully, and once a PEEP has been agreed upon the question arises of whether it is appropriate for other members of staff to be made aware of what’s required.

We advised in a case where an occupational health department refused on the grounds of employee confidentiality to inform the health and safety manager pro-actively of new staff who had mobility issues.

We quoted the Equality and Human Rights Commission Code of Practice which says that if an employer’s agent or employee, such as the occupational health adviser, knows in that capacity of a worker’s or applicant’s or potential applicant’s disability, the employer will be considered to be aware and will be expected to make reasonable adjustments to its procedures.

If you want to know more, or you have a question or concern, please contact us at info@aboutaccess.co.uk

Clients can access the NRAC either through its web site www.nrac.org.uk or by contacting the NRAC directly on 020 7822 8282 or by email info@nrac.org.uk

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