Disability is a protected characteristic protected from unfavourable treatment by the Equality Act 2010. Although only one of nine, disability is often the characteristic that trips employers up. A tribunal claim for disability discrimination can leave employers facing a large compensation bill so it is essential they are taking steps to prevent discrimination happening in the workplace.
In order to be defined as disabled, the person must have either a physical or mental impairment; the impairment must have a substantial adverse effect; the substantial effects must be long term; and this must affect normal day to day activities. This broad definition might mean that an employee can be classed as disabled without having a “normal” or visible disability.
To ensure any person with a disability is not treated unfavourably, employers need to ensure they’re creating a culture where the employee feels they can disclose their disability, showing that disabilities aren’t a taboo topic. This can be through simple things such as actively demonstrating discrimination is not tolerated, having an equal opportunities policy which encourages employees to come forward with any information regarding protected characteristics and pro-actively managing information received from return to work interviews, fit notes or patterns of absences.
Once an employer is aware of the employee’s disability, they are under a legal duty to make reasonable adjustments to adjust a provision, criterion, practice or physical feature which puts the worker at a disadvantage. This duty only relates to reasonable adjustments meaning it doesn’t cover adjustments which have a significant financial or burdensome effect on the business. What most employers don’t realise is that simple adjustments can reduce the disadvantage faced by the employee; an obvious one is to move the start and end time of a person’s working hours if their disability requires medication which affects their alertness. Other examples are a closer parking space, a larger computer screen or discounting disability-related absences in the absence procedure.
Ensuring the whole workforce is trained on equal opportunities will drastically reduce the likelihood of disability discrimination occurring. It might not be enough to simply have an equal opportunities policy in a handbook and employers should be actively informing all staff of the existence of the policy, providing training on what is and isn’t acceptable conduct under this and then taking steps to manage any breaches. Managers and senior decision makers should not be exempt from these steps; it is, perhaps, even more important that they understand discrimination laws as they will be directly managing disabled employees.