With just one in three disabled people of working age in employment worldwide, employers must do more to maximise the potential of those with disabilities.
Workers with disabilities have often faced significant challenges in accessing work and remaining in employment – and, as a UK Trades Union Congress (TUC) report published in June has revealed, the COVID-19 pandemic has only raised pre-existing barriers (TUC, 2021).
Moreover, disabled people remain particularly vulnerable. They have so far accounted for nearly 60% of the UK’s COVID-19-related deaths (Office for National Statistics, 2021).
Around 15% of the global population live with a disability – that’s around a billion people (World Health Organization, 2011). Although around 80% of disabled people are of working age, the International Labour Organization (ILO) reports that, on average, only one in three of these are employed (ILO, 2020).
As the International Day of People with Disabilities approaches on 3 December, it’s important to remember that the Sustainable Development Goals set out in the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development seek to empower disabled people in several labour market objectives: for example, full and productive employment and decent work.
Employment provisions for disabled workers vary from country to country, and some nations are more progressive than others in this regard. In the UK, the principal legislation is the Equality Act 2010, which requires employers to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to accommodate the needs of disabled employees (see UK employment law on disabilities, page 14).
Lack of awareness
Despite the legislation, Tony Stevens, head of development at Disability Rights UK, notes that employers are not always aware that reasonable adjustments can significantly reduce any remaining risks.
Joshua Holland TechIOSH, health and safety consultant at RADCaT Ltd, concurs. A type 1 diabetic, he’s been forced in the past to inject insulin in the privacy of workplace toilets – the only place on-site that had handwashing facilities.
His experience shaped his decision to become an OSH professional. ‘I meet people with disabilities on a daily basis and I meet employers,’ he says. ‘I can talk about these things with them.’
However, as the TUC report makes clear, many workers are not comfortable disclosing their disability, health condition or impairment to their employer. Its research found that nearly a quarter of those who did not tell their employer they were disabled said it was because they thought they would be treated unfairly (TUC, 2021). Employers may also not realise the staff member is disabled to start with: invisible disabilities include mental health conditions, chronic pain, diabetes and hearing loss.
Joshua agrees there is a discrepancy between how employers approach visible and non-visible disabilities. If someone is a wheelchair user, for example, an employer can install ramps, but it’s harder to respond when a disability is hidden.
‘It needs consultation with people with disabilities to see what they think they require, or what precedent there is,’ he says. ‘Then together they can look and see if it’s reasonable for the company.’
Louise Youngman, executive director of people at the charity Scope, says employers must be more proactive. ‘It’s really important that an organisation’s mindset is one where they are determined to foster and develop a culture that encourages openness and psychological safety, whereby employees are comfortable and confident enough to share their disability, health condition or impairment and be able to ask for whatever provisions they need,’ she says.
Part of the challenge for employers is that no two people with disabilities are exactly alike. But the UK’s equality legislation makes it clear that provisions must be tailored to individual needs.
Louise also points out that about 80% of disabled people acquire their condition during their working lives (University of St Andrews, 2021). This reinforces the message that employers need to accommodate an employee’s needs as they change over time.
David Thomas, chair of the IOSH Environmental and Waste Management Group, agrees. However, he adds that the focus should not be on disabilities, but on ability management.
‘Someone who is 60 doing a physical job may be only 50% capable of doing what someone who is 21 doing the same job can do,’ David explains. ‘The spinal compression tolerance limit reduces between the ages of 20 and 60. Ability and capability are key. How can we maximise human capital rather than hide behind a negative label?’
David argues that it is not always possible to accommodate workers with disabilities in certain roles. But rather than push them out of employment, they need to be retrained so they can take on other roles.
Brian Wood, health and safety manager at Scope, believes there is an onus on OSH professionals to push for adaptations in the workplace where it is practicable rather than retro-fitting solutions afterwards.
‘The management regulations say that when you are doing a risk assessment in the workplace you must assess it for everybody you expect to be on the premises, but that doesn’t happen enough,’ he says.
OSH interventions to improve provisions for disabled employees are often less about the individual sector and more about specific workplace activities, such as managing fire evacuation and providing more flexibility around specific roles.
Amanda Livingstone, chair of the IOSH Education Group, is health, safety and wellbeing manager at the University of Brighton in the UK. She explains that, in addition to providing evacuation chairs for those unable to use the stairs, her team also have personal emergency evacuation plans that cover procedures for individuals.
She adds that supporting individuals with mental health disabilities is a growing area. ‘We have many procedures to support staff, including a wellbeing provision and our own in-house occupational health [OH] service,’ she says. ‘Within the education sector, there are members of staff who have some sort of wellbeing role as part of their job remit.’
OSH in education has a long history of working collaboratively with HR and OH, most notably on stress-related issues, she says. ‘This is often seen as the application of the GB Health and Safety Executive’s stress management standards where human resources, OH and health and safety work together to support staff and managers to proactively manage stress. This has been further extended more recently with COVID as there has been an increase in reports of anxiety from staff.’
H&S staff continue to provide support by ensuring procedures are in place to manage the COVID risk as far as is reasonably practical, in line with government guidance, Amanda adds. Those OSH staff who have wellbeing as part of their role also provide additional support to staff in collaboration with OH and HR by providing wellbeing services and ensuring staff are aware of them.
Legal background: UK employment law on disabilities
The UK’s Equality Act 2010 defines disability for employment purposes, and notes that ‘a person is “disabled” if they have a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities’.
‘Long term’ means that the condition must last, or be likely to last, for more than 12 months, or is likely to last for the rest of the person’s life. Employees with conditions such as cancer, HIV/AIDS or multiple sclerosis are covered from their diagnosis date.
As the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) notes, this definition is very broad, so many other conditions – such as chronic fatigue syndrome, arthritis, diabetes and nut allergies – could also potentially be covered (CIPD, 2021).
Employers have a legal requirement to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to accommodate a disabled person’s needs and these must be considered with a specific individual and specific role in mind. The CIPD also recommends firms write up an inclusion and diversity policy and challenge stereotypical thinking on the part of staff members.
Bigger is better
Historically, larger companies have arguably had a better record on providing for disabled employees. Louise says an example of good practice in larger organisations is a ‘passport’ that explains the reasonable adjustments an employee needs for future employers. ‘What it does is say to the next line manager or next department, “These are the things I need to help me do a brilliant job”, rather than “I’ve got type 1 diabetes, and this is what it means,”’ she explains. ‘If you are disabled, you often have to repeat your situation to each new line manager, but this takes away that requirement.’
Louise adds that the government launched a national disability strategy in late July that mentioned the development of a hub for employers, which she says will hopefully provide resources for small- to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).
Joshua would like to see something more concrete. He says that when managing directors in SMEs first start in their role, they should take a mandatory awareness training course that outlines their legal duties. Too many work their way up from less senior positions, he adds, which leaves them with no experience or knowledge of HR, data protection, health and safety legislation, or common disabilities and the need to make reasonable adjustments. As Joshua says: ‘Without understanding your responsibilities, how can you ensure you are meeting them as a managing director?’
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Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. (2021) Disability and employment. (accessed 6 September 2021).
Health and Safety Executive. (2021) Health and safety for disabled people (accessed 8 September).
Trades Union Congress. (2021) Disabled workers’ experiences during the pandemic (accessed 3 September 2021).
University of St Andrews. (2021) Facts on disability (accessed 7 September 2021).
World Health Organization. (2011) World report on disability (accessed 3 September 2021).