It is estimated that one in five people in the UK have a disability, but only around half of those people are able to find employment.  At the same time businesses are reporting difficulties in recruiting to vacancies.  Could it be that these two things are related?

For many people the word ‘disability’ conjures up a picture of a wheelchair user or someone with a guide dog but in fact about 70% of disabilities are invisible.  Hidden disabilities include things like being deaf, having asthma or diabetes.  Being dyslexic is a disability, even things like claustrophobia if it impacts day to day life.  Frequent, severe migraine is a disability.  Obesity may not itself a disability but the impact of excessive weight on joints and breathing are likely to be disabilities.

Cancer, HIV and Multiple Sclerosis are disabilities from the first day of diagnosis.  Conversely there are somethings that are excluded such as alcoholism and other drug addictions.  One claimant tried to persuade an Employment Tribunal that his tendency to arson was a disability but was unsuccessful!

The legal definition of a disability is a physical or mental impairment that is long term and has an adverse effect on the person’s ability to undertake normal day to day activities.  The Equality Act 2010 defines ‘long term’ as something that has lasted a year or is likely to last a year.

Many disabilities arise during the course of an individual’s working life so it is entirely possible that one or more of your current employees could develop a disability – or maybe has already developed a disability.

Employers are required to make reasonable adjustments to the workplace and/or the job itself to enable the individual to fulfil a job role.  Most adjustments are inexpensive and many are cost neutral – there are no financial costs associated with someone being allowed to travel outside of the rush hour for example.  Neither is it the case that people with disabilities are off sick more frequently than employees who do not have a disability.  Why would someone with dyslexia be off sick more often than someone who is not dyslexic?  If a disabled worker needs a specialist chair for example, or perhaps speech enabled software, government funding is available through Access to Work.

The Equality Act protects against all the different types of disability discrimination that can arise in the workplace and beyond.  Most obvious is direct discrimination, when a disabled person is treated less favourably because of their disability; this often arises at the recruitment stage when someone fails to get a job or promotion because of their disability.  Of course, you do not have to recruit someone to a post which they are totally unable to do – a wheelchair user could not be a roofer for example.

Indirect discrimination is when the workplace has a policy or practice which is applied equally to everyone but which puts a disabled worker at a particular disadvantage.  For example, insisting that everyone has their lunch break between 1300hrs and 1400hrs might make it difficult for a diabetic person to manage their blood sugar levels and they might need to eat a meal earlier or later.

The Equality Act also makes it unlawful to disadvantage someone for something ‘arising from a disability’ which is when someone is treated unfavourably not because of the disability itself but because of something connected to their disability.  For example, someone might be excluded or side-lined because they are dyslexic and therefore need longer to read the papers for meetings so their ability to participate or get promotion might be something arising from a disability,

Employers should to be more open minded and less fearful about employing people with disabilities, your preconceptions may mean that you are missing out on some potentially excellent employees.

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