The Equality Act 2010 requires employers to make reasonable adjustments in the workplace for disabled employees to remove their disadvantage and ensure they have the same opportunities as others. In some respects, it offers unique protection to those who are disabled, as it imposes an obligation on employers to treat disabled staff and applicants more favourably than those who are not disabled.
The type of adjustment employers may be required to make will vary depending on the individual’s health, and what aspect of their role or the premises puts them at a disadvantage – adopting a ‘one size fits all’ approach can be risky for businesses. Typical examples include providing the employee with specialist equipment, such as a computer screen for someone who is visually impaired, or digital dictation for someone suffering from arthritis.
Employers should be mindful that the definition of ‘disability’ under the Equality Act is broad. This means a condition that does not correspond with common perceptions of disability may still be considered a disability under the Act.
A common pitfall for businesses is waiting to make adjustments until they receive confirmation from occupational health (OH) that the individual is likely to be disabled. This is a dangerous approach to adopt and sees companies fall into a ‘box ticking’ exercise, and lack of knowledge is a risky defence to run if a claim is brought.
An employee can bring a claim if the employer ought, reasonably, to have known of their disability. If the employee discussed their illness and the challenges it poses with their line manager, it might be difficult to plead ignorance in the absence of OH’s opinion.
Employers should consider getting an opinion from the medical experts treating the employee, as they will be better placed to advise on the required adjustments. Maintaining an open dialogue with the employee is crucial to getting it right.
Ultimately, it’s in the business’s interests to tread with caution, try to understand the illness and do the groundwork to create a tailored approach for each individual.
Homa Wilson is a partner at Hodge, Jones & Allen