The Business Disability Forum has released the results of its Great Big Workplace Adjustments Survey 2023. The survey looks at the process, experience, and impact of workplace adjustments. 
The survey is described as “one of the most comprehensive pieces of research ever conducted into the workplace experiences of disabled people and people with long-term conditions in the UK,” making it a valuable resource for employers to learn from. 
Understanding the experience of disabled workers can help you reduce the risk of discrimination claims. You may be more able to spot any risk of extra hardships caused by your policies, reducing the risk of indirect discrimination, and able to spot the potential for something to create a hostile work environment, thus reducing your risk of harassment claims. 
Here’s what the survey found, and how you can use the information to avoid discriminating. 
The process of getting adjustments 
Employers have a duty to make reasonable adjustments to help reduce the difficulties disabled workers face in their job. What is reasonable will depend upon the effects of the disability, the resources of the employer and the practicality of the adjustment. However, only 10% of disabled employees said it was easy to get the adjustments they needed and only 45% of employees currently have all the adjustments they need. This suggests a high number of employers are leaving themselves open to claims for failure to make reasonable adjustments. 
Since the last survey in 2019, there has been some improvement in the speed of getting adjustments, but 1 in 8 disabled employees are still waiting over a year to get the adjustments they need. The survey found that support services are often disorganised, relying on multiple contracts, accessed through different departments. This is confusing for managers, needing lots of time and energy to figure out. 
Employers are expected to make reasonable adjustments as soon as possible. If your process is so difficult that it effectively prevents reasonable adjustments or causes unreasonable delays, you may still be failing in your legal duties. Where there are other issues in the workplace, it could also contribute to a generally hostile and uncomfortable working environment, putting you at risk of claims for harassment because of disability. 
58% of employees said getting adjustments depended on how assertive they were when asking. Many had to raise grievances purely to get the necessary adjustments, which left them feeling they were viewed as ‘trouble’ or a ‘pain’. If workers are penalised for enforcing their legal rights, they could have a claim for victimisation. 
Managers confidence 
Managers’ confidence in making adjustments has improved since the 2019 survey, with them reporting better knowledge, skills, and understanding. 64% of managers felt very confident having discussions with an employee about their disability or condition. 
Yet this leaves more than a third of managers who were not confident. This could cause discomfort for both the manager and disabled worker, and at worst could cause mistakes, poor phrasing or miscommunication that could escalate. 
The most difficult conversations and tensions often came when adjustments needed to change or when a ‘first choice’ of adjustments could not be fulfilled. It is important that, if you must refuse adjustments, you are certain you have a good legal reason – for example that the cost is unaffordable or the adjustment would make little difference. As these conversations are a key point of tension, carefully consider how you will deliver this news to the employee, and who is best placed to have the conversation. Be clear about your reasons for refusing the adjustments and have alternatives ready to discuss with the employee. 
Diagnosis and assessments 
The survey found that too many processes required a formal diagnosis, which wasn’t always practical and delayed the necessary adjustments. 
An increase in NHS waiting times means longer waits for initial appointments and a longer process to be diagnosed, during which time employees were still suffering difficulties caused by their symptoms. Some employees even funded private advice to get a diagnosis. 
Some policies insisted on an occupational health assessment, even though it was rarely useful - only 25% of managers and 22% of employees said occupational health helped them understand or manage the impact of the condition at work. One-size-fits-all assessments meant some employees were being asked to attempt physical assessments that they could not do, or which weren’t relevant to their adjustments, and which sometimes caused further harm. 
In the legal sense, a disability is a physical or mental impairment which has a long-term and substantial adverse effect on your ability to carry out day-to-day activities. Evidence from a doctor can be helpful to understand whether the condition is long-term and to understand the employee’s needs, now and in the future, but employees do not need to have been clinically diagnosed with a medical condition to be protected by the law. 
You have a duty to make reasonable adjustments as soon as you can. If you are aware that an employee is having difficulties and that there are ways to help, you might put yourself at risk of claims by waiting until after an official diagnosis. 
Instead, it might be best to take a more generous approach and offer what support you can early on. This will benefit the employee’s wellbeing and productivity. Even if the diagnosis means they don’t meet the threshold of a disability you still want them to feel valued and supported. The reduced risk of discrimination claims is a bonus, along with much better morale. 
The adjustments 
The most popular adjustments involved flexibility, with 47% of employees requesting flexible work or adjusted hours, and 42% given time off the attend appointments. 
72% of disabled employees found their disability or condition easier to manage when working from home, as they did not waste energy on long stressful commutes or navigating the poor accessibility of their wider working environment. 
Many managers and disabled employees said adjustments are less needed in organisations where flexibility is designed into the culture. A reduced need for official ‘adjustments’ could reduce the risk of related disputes or legal claims. Consider how you can be flexible with working location or hours, to help staff work around their needs. 
49% said adjustments help them stay in their job and 48% said adjustments help them to be more productive. 
However, adjustments were generally made for their specific job, situation, or immediate working location. 56% of disabled employees said there are still disability-related barriers in the workplace after adjustments have been made, such as bullying (38%), being spoken down to (40%), lack of accessibility in the wider workplace, and in accessibility of development opportunities. 
Failure to make reasonable adjustments is only one form of disability discrimination. If workers are still experiencing direct or indirect discrimination, harassment, or victimisation, then you are still at risk of legal disputes. 
When a worker requires reasonable adjustments, don’t stop at the bare minimum. This is an opportunity to discuss their needs and experience. Take the opportunity to discuss how you can make the whole workplace more accessible and improve the workplace culture. 
Career progress 
62% would like to be promoted to a more senior role within the next two years. Unfortunately, despite being ambitious, a lot of employees feel “stuck.” Having taken them so long to get their adjustments in place, they did not want to change their work situation and go through the process of renegotiating those adjustments. 
Where employees are scared to apply for promotion, your organisation may be missing out on diversity in senior roles and all the benefits that brings. If your policies and practices make it more difficult for disabled employees to apply for promotions, this could be discriminatory. 
You should consider reasonable adjustments to the process to make it more accessible to disabled employees. For example, rather than ask candidates to travel for interviews, you could travel to their workplace where adaptions are already in place or interview them remotely. 
You might also consider positive action to encourage disabled employees to apply for promotions. This could mean being proactive about contacting suitable candidates, discussing anything that might be putting them off applying, and reassuring them that they will be supported with reasonable adjustments. Some employers worry about treating disabled employees differently. The Equality Act allows for positive action to minimise a disadvantage, meet different needs and encourage participation. However, it is important to think about how this is communicated to your employee and whether they can be involved in the process, so that they do not feel patronised or undermined. 
Overall experience 
Only 18% of disabled employees are currently very satisfied with their current work situation, while 28% want to leave their current employer because they don’t feel they have been treated well. 
Even if your employee hasn’t complained, they might still not feel supported. As mentioned above, it may simply be that they’re worried about being seen as difficult. 
Don’t wait until problems escalate to act. The longer a problem is left, the harder it can be to resolve. Once the relationship has broken down, it can be much more difficult to negotiate a settlement that suits everybody. 
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