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Managing a disability in the workplace

Published 13 May 2019

Managing a disability in the workplace

Employers face numerous challenges in the workplace and dealing with a disability is one that they cannot afford to get wrong.

If a disabled person is treated unfavourably as a direct result of their disability it is discrimination.

This type of discrimination is unlawful where the employer knows, or could reasonably be expected to know, that the employee has a disability.

Under the Equality Act 2010 a disabled person is defined as having 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 (1)

  • The term impairment is not defined by the Act but has a functional meaning and focuses on what someone cannot do, not on what they can.
  • The meaning of long term is it has lasted for 12 months, is likely to last for 12 months or is likely to last of the rest of the life of the person affected.

Where an employee discloses to an employer that they have a disability it must make reasonable adjustments (2) to ensure the individual is not disadvantaged. This will mean taking steps to remove, reduce or prevent obstacles that worker faces.

In this situation the dilemma for an employer is what is reasonable?

This will undoubtedly depend on the size of the organisation. While a large employer can be expected to make significant adjustments, such as adaptions to a building for better access, a small or medium size enterprise is unlikely to be able, or be expected, to do the same.

For both employers and employees there is support available from the government-backed Access to Work programme (3). It provides support for disabled people to take up or remain in work. It is a discretionary grant scheme that can give personalised support to disabled people who are in employment, including those who are paid employees, self-employed apprentices or trainees.

There are many easy and inexpensive adjustments that can be made to support a disabled employee, which include:

  • A ramp for a wheelchair user.
  • A specially designed support chair to help with a back problem.
  • Flexible working hours.
  • A special keyboard because of arthritis
  • Adapting the sickness absence management triggers that lead to formal action being taken to address attendance concerns.
  • Modifying performance targets.

It is not uncommon for an individual with an invisible disability (4) not to disclose it before starting employment. An invisible disability is one that is not easily visible and examples include depressive disorders, diabetes, epilepsy, dyslexia and autism.

Although there may not be physical signs of the disability, the condition can be painful, exhausting and isolating and sympathy and understanding from others may be in short supply.

An employee may not disclose details of such a condition at the time of their appointment. This may be out of fear that they may not have got the job if they did so, or because the illness may have been under control at the time.

The Equality Act helps protect job applicants against discrimination, by making it clear that employers should not ask questions about a candidate’s health or sickness record before offering a job (5)

However, there are some limited exceptions to this rule, such as when it might be necessary to offer adjustments during the selection process or to decide whether a candidate can carry out an essential part of the job

According to the charity Scope there are 13.9 million disabled people in the UK and more than 3.7 million are in work (6)

Upon commencing employment if an employee later reveals that they have a disability an employer should act reasonably and seek expert advice if unsure about what to do.

It is worth reiterating that employers do have a duty to make reasonable adjustments for people who disclose a disability which is protected under the Equality Act.

“A reputation built on success”

For free employment law advice or if you are affected or want information and support by any of the issues in this article please give us a call. 0333 772 0611


  1. Equality Act 2010 [Internet] [Accessed on 13th May 2019]
  2. Reasonable adjustments [Internet] [Accessed on 13th May 2019]
  3. Access to work programme [Internet] httpes:// [Accessed on 13th May 2019]
  4. Invisible [Internet] [Accessed on 13th May 2019]
  5. Equality Act [Internet] [Accessed on 13th May 2019]
  6. Charity Scope statistics [Internet] [Accessed on 13th May 2019]

A reputation built on success

For employment law advice or if you are affected or want information and support by any of the issues in this article please give us a call. 

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