Over ten million people in the UK are registered as disabled. These disabilities are wide-ranging and varied, including physical, mental, and sensory impairments. This article explains ways to accommodate them.
The Equality Act 2010 dictates that employers should make reasonable provisions for disabled employees. However, we think we can do better than just ‘reasonable’.
True accessibility goes deeper than installing a few wheelchair ramps. It involves an inclusive attitude, a flexible management style, and more.
Here, we’ll go into some of the ways you can adapt your workplace strategy to accommodate disabled employees. Not just the physical stuff – like ramps – but the intangible things too – like flexibility, and compassion:
Make your infrastructure accessible
Accessible infrastructure is one of the first things people think of when considering disabled access – but some things still get forgotten. Here are a few things to consider with inclusive workplace architecture and furnishings.
There is no such thing as a ‘one size fits all’ desk. Be prepared to adapt, replace, and improve people’s desks and workstations whenever needed.
Hunching over desks that are too low can exacerbate back problems. Desks that are too high can exclude people with conditions such as dwarfism.
While we’re on the topic, it’s also worth remembering that typical desks can be too cramped for many wheelchair users. People with wheelchairs will need desks that can both accommodate their chairs and give them plenty of room to manoeuvre.
Access to clean, functioning toilets and other sanitary facilities are a basic human right.
To make sure that everyone can access your toilets, keep pathways to the facilities clear and level. Install doors that open easily, stalls that are large enough to accommodate wheelchairs, and so on.
Think also about the distance from offices to toilet blocks. If employees can’t access toilets because the distance is too far or there are flights of stairs in the way, that’s a problem.
Clear and level access
Stairs and cluttered pathways can be difficult for people in wheelchairs, with mobility aids, or with visual impairments, to navigate. Try and keep access around your workplace as clear and level as possible.
If it’s not possible to level everything out, don’t worry. There are ways you can make things easier for your employees. Adding ramps is a big start. For people with visual impairments, tactile architecture warning people of upcoming obstacles can make a huge difference.
Accessible emergency exits
Emergency access is often a problem for disabled people. During an emergency, lifts may be shut off, which makes it hard for people with mobility issues to get down to the ground floor. If your emergency alarm is just a siren with no light component, deaf employees will be at a severe disadvantage. People with visual impairments may not be able to see emergency signage – the list goes on.
So, you need to come up with plans for getting disabled employees out in the event of an emergency.
You may be limited in what you can do architecturally to help out disabled employees. What you can do, however, (and what the government recommends) is come up with a risk assessment. Once you’ve done this assessment you should have a better idea of who is at risk and the issues they might face getting out.
Once you know what people are dealing with, you can come up with strategies to enable everyone’s escape in the event of an emergency.
Panels at accessible heights
Most modern buildings have essential panels at accessible heights as standard. However, not all of us are working with modern buildings.
Things like floor-level sockets, high light switches, and high door or security panels can be tricky for people who have problems either bending down low or reaching up high.
If you can, take out high switches and panels and replace them at a height that’s accessible for everyone.
If you can safely add a raised extension cable to lift the height of sockets then do so – but remember that trailing cords across pathways can be dangerous, as well as presenting obstacles for employees with mobility issues. You don’t want to solve one problem by creating a new one.
Mental health considerations
70 million workdays are lost to mental health conditions in the UK every year. To protect both your employees and your business, you need to create an environment that mitigates mental health factors and nurtures healthy minds. Here’s how:
Have clear and accessible HR policies
Uncertainty can have a terrible impact on mental health. Make sure that your employees know exactly where they stand and what help is available for them by making your HR policies as clear and accessible as possible.
It’s worth having a clear policy in place which explains what happens in the event of an accident or injury to an employee, and not just if it occurred in the workplace itself. Even the simplest medical procedures can have complications, and people’s experiences of conditions differ a lot.
If they’ve been involved in an accident of some sort or been a victim of medical negligence, they could also be pursuing compensation and may need both your practical and emotional support during that process, once they return to the workplace and beyond.
Flexible working policies
People aren’t robots. They need a bit of give in their lives. A schedule that’s too tight and inflexible is a recipe for disaster.
Longer working hours, less ‘downtime’, and greater after-work pressure mean that people have less free time than ever. People are juggling things like childcare, rising cost of living, and a hectic work schedule in ways they’ve never had to before.
All of this has an impact on mental health. However, you can mitigate this by giving your employees flexibility in their working lives.
Allowing things like duvet days, being prepared to ease up on people when they’re under too much pressure, and making sure that you always have the resources to cover when people need a break can all make an enormous difference to the mental health of your team.
Access to remote working
We’ll go into this in more detail later, as it’s very relevant for our current situation, but for now, we’ll just say that letting people work from home when needed can be a real lifesaver when it comes to mental health.
Commuting and being constrained to the office space/hours isn’t exactly convenient. Often it’s necessary, and sometimes employers prefer to have employees where they can check up on them. However, remote working technology means that it’s easier than ever for people to work from home just as effectively as they would from the office.
The pandemic has also proven that employer concerns about productivity dropping when people work remotely were profoundly misplaced.
Allowing people to work from home as and when needed adds some of that all-important flexibility, without any loss for your company. We’d argue that you shouldn’t just allow remote working – you should actively enable it. But more on that in a moment.
Ask employees about their needs
Even if you think you know what to expect from an employee with a mental health issue or physical disability, don’t make assumptions. To properly accommodate disabled employees, ask them how they’re feeling and what they need.
Create a sharing culture, in which people feel listened to and comfortable about coming to you with their needs. If they don’t actively come to you (some people will be hesitant to ask for help, even if you’re the most compassionate boss in the world!), take the initiative yourself. Ask them if there’s anything you can do to help out, and take action accordingly.
Making remote work accessible
Remote working has exploded over the past year, for obvious reasons. And, just because someone’s working from home it doesn’t mean that their employer isn’t responsible for their wellbeing. Focus on accessibility for remote workers by considering the following:
Providing the right equipment
Unlike within an office, it’s harder to level the playing field for remote workers. They’re all operating within different environments, with different distractions.
You can, however, make sure that they’ve all got the right equipment. Make sure that everyone has a good internet connection, a desk suited to their needs, the right kind of tech, and so on.
Also, think about things like making your remote networks accessible for people with visual and other sensory impairments. For example, certain fonts, character spacing, and colours can present difficulties for people with sight problems.
Voice-to-text technology for those all-important video conference calls can also be hugely helpful for people with hearing impairments.
Understanding the differing needs and circumstances of all workers
When working from home, some people may have more to work with than others. Some may be trying to deal with children while working from home or cramped into a busy living room with their computer. Others may have more distraction-free space.
Be prepared to make allowances, or to shake up the roster so that everyone has a workload they can cope with under their circumstances.
Loneliness and isolation are big problems for people who work remotely. Help your workers to stay connected by emphasising communication.
Apps like Slack and Trello aren’t just great for organising workflows. They’re also fantastic communication tools. They make it easier for colleagues to talk to one another, and to reach out privately to managers if they’re in need of help.
There’s no substitute for face-to-face communication, but by facilitating communication among remote workers, you can make sure your workers know they are supported and can reach out if they need to.
Companies that don’t accommodate disabled employees and prioritise accessibility are losing out. Everyone has different needs, and people aren’t prepared to sacrifice their health for their job – especially when the law is on their side.
By making your work environment accessible, you also make it welcoming. Your employees will feel comfortable, cared for, and appreciated. And that’s great not just for your employees, but for your business overall.
Adopting some of the ways we’ve discussed into your workplace strategy will help accommodate a more diverse team long-term.
It’s important to remember it’s not just the physical aspects of a work environment that need addressing but being flexible, compassionate and open with your communication to ensure your team are fully equipped to do their job to an equal standard as the rest of the organisation.
About the Author
Gemma Hart is an independent HR professional working remotely from as many coffee shops as she can find. Since graduating in 2013, Gemma has gained experience in a number of HR roles but now turns her focus towards growing her personal brand and connecting with leading experts. Connect with her on Twitter.