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5 Meaningful Ways to Support Disabled Employees in the Workplace

According to the Office for National Statistics, there were 10.21 million working-age people, between the ages of 16 to 64, in the UK at the end of 2023, who considered themselves disabled. That’s nearly one quarter (24%) of the total working-age population of the entire UK.

Of these, around 5.53 million people were employed, between October and December 2023. 

As a result, whether you’re formally aware of it or not, it’s likely that your workplace has employees who are disabled. And how your organisation supports those employees is crucial when it comes to living up to your values, following the law and 

Unfortunately, some employers can be quick to label themselves as an ‘inclusive employer’ without taking the time to really understand just what that word means – and the responsibilities come along with it. 

Inclusion is more than just a trendy phrase, wheeled out every so often in job adverts and flashy brand marketing. Inclusion is about the practical, everyday measures and actions that companies take to make sure that every employee has the opportunity to reach their full potential. 

In this blog, we’ll explore five of the most meaningful ways that you can support disabled employees in the workplace. 

1. Make an effort to understand the needs of your employees

You can’t truly support someone unless you know what they need. The first step towards supporting disabled employees in your workplace is to actually find out the specific things that they need from you to feel supported in their role. 

Arguably, the best way to do this is to arrange some one-on-one conversations with employees who would consider themselves disabled in some way, either with line managers or another designated member of staff. Conversations like these will give your employee the opportunity to lay out their experience of working at your company and to make clear the things that they think would improve it. One-on-one conversations could be run in parallel with collective conversations, like focus groups, workshops or group meetings, in order to give employees a wide range of ways to have a discussion about their needs. 

Of course, not everyone is comfortable speaking completely frankly in a one-on-one conversation, or collectively. When it comes to the world of work, there are too many factors that can influence how much an employee chooses to say, like fears about being discriminated against, victimised or being fired if they say something that their employer doesn’t like. As a result, HR departments should think of additional ways that employees can share their honest experiences and recommendations anonymously. Some possible solutions include things like:

  • Anonymous boxes for feedback in your office
  • Anonymous online surveys 
  • Anonymous online feedback tools

2. Understand the law and your responsibilities

Understanding your statutory responsibilities when it comes to supporting disabled people is probably one of the most basic things that you can do to support disabled employees meaningfully in the workplace. It’s also one of the most essential things that you need to do. 

By law, all employers have a responsibility to ensure that disabled people are not discriminated against in the workplace. 

The Equality Act 2010 lists disability as a protected characteristic, which means that it is against the law to discriminate against someone on the basis of a disability. This piece of legislation doesn’t just apply to the world of work either: it’s applicable across a wide variety of areas, including in education, in retail and when accessing public services, for example. 

ACAS outlines the following things that employers must do when it comes to disability in their overview. We’ve summarised this here:

  • Employers need to make reasonable adjustments as soon as they know that someone is disabled. They also need to make reasonable adjustments if they could be expected to know of someone’s disability. 
  • Employers must do all their reasonably can to protect disabled employees and job candidates from discrimination, and support them
  • Employers must take measures to prevent discrimination on the basis of disability 

A person in a wheelchair in an office

3. Make adjustments if you need to

One of the key duties that an employer has to fulfill to disabled employees under the Equality Act 2010 is making ‘reasonable adjustments’ to working practices if required.

The term ‘reasonable adjustment’ is pretty ambiguous though, leaving lots of room for confusion when it comes to making them. 

Luckily, there are a range of resources out there to help you navigate the issue. 

ACAS, the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service, is your friend when it comes to understanding reasonable adjustments. This independent public body is responsible for fostering good employment relations in the UK and provides a range of statutory legal advice to employers and employees. As a result, it knows its stuff when it comes to an employer’s duties under the law. 

In this article, it defines reasonable adjustments as ‘changes an employer makes to remove or reduce a disadvantage related to someone's disability.’ It lists things like the following as reasonable adjustments:

  • Changing working arrangements
  • Changing aspects of the workplace
  • Changing the way that something is done
  • Offering extra support, equipment or services

Importantly, it defines ‘reasonable’ adjustments as things which can ‘remove or reduce disadvantage’, measures that are ‘practical to make’, are ‘affordable’ and are made to improve the ‘health and safety of others’. 

  • ‘will remove or reduce the disadvantage
  • is practical to make
  • is affordable
  • could harm the health and safety of others’

ACAS also outline how an employer will need to make these reasonable adjustments when they know (or could be expected to know) that someone has a disability; when a disabled employees requests them; when it’s clear that a disabled employee is struggling with an aspect of their job; or when an absence, sickness or delay in returning to work is caused by, or linked to, a disability. 

Even if your adjustment only helps a few people, that’s still a practical action that demonstrates that your organisation is aware that people with specific needs exist. It shows that your organisation is willing to adjust the way that it works to ensure that disabled employees feel fully included in the workplace – and that it’s willing to do what it can to help them reach their full potential. 

If you’re keen to find out more about reasonable adjustments, MIND, a UK mental health charity, has a comprehensive article exploring the subject in detail. It’s well worth a read to find out more about how reasonable adjustments work in reality.  

4. Understand what disability is

As this article by ACAS points out, disability in the workplace is a lot more complicated than you first might consider. For starters, not all disabilities are visible – think of things like mental health conditions, visual impairment and hearing impairment for example. Disabilities will affect different people in different ways too, reflecting the fact that we are all individuals and that a one-size-fits-all approach might not be the most appropriate. 

The solution to this complexity is simple (on paper at least) – you need to educate yourself about what disability really is and how it can interact with a person’s performance and behaviour in the workplace. Doing this will help you to better understand the barriers that many disabled people can face at work – and help focus your mind on how you can improve your own organisation.

Disabled employees in the workplace

5. Work with employee representatives 

Employee representatives can be useful partners when it comes to improving inclusion and accessibility for disabled employees in your own workplace. 

Some workplaces will already have established employee networks and trade unions present. If your workplace is one of these places, then your job is a tiny bit easier. You just need to start a conversation with them and find out how you can work together to improve support for disabled people at your organisation. 

As we explored a bit earlier, it makes sense to work with employees collectively so that they have the confidence to share what they really feel and think, free of the fear of being labelled a trouble-maker for giving their honest feedback. 

Unfortnately, there isn’t a magical wand when it comes to providing support…

Offering support to disabled employees that doesn’t seem tokenistic can be really challenging. After all, disability is a complex subject and inclusion is something that requires dedicated time and effort to get right. Listening to employees with lived experience of the issue and educating yourself and your workplace is one of the best ways that you can support disabled employees in the workplace. We’ve outlined some of the basic steps that you can use as a starting place for your efforts to improve accessibility above. We hope that you find them useful!

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