A guide to supporting an employee with a disability

Read OpenBlend's guide to supporting disabled employees in the workplace effectively. With tips on how to approach 1:1 conversations from an inclusive standpoint and how to make reasonable adjustments.

"Am I offering the right support to disabled team members?"

Almost half of working-age people with disabilities in the UK are employed – a figure that could, and should, be higher. Yet many employers are failing to offer disabled employees the conditions and the experience they need to perform to the best of their ability at work.

Research in 2022 found that tens of thousands of disabled staff are ‘managed out’ of their jobs every year as they did not receive reasonable adjustments they either needed, or that would improve their experience in the workplace. One interviewee stated: “Some of that is wilful, some of that is ignorance, and all of it is very bad employer practice.”

Workplaces need to ensure they are not only offering disabled employees equal opportunities at the initial offer of employment stage, or making the minimal reasonable adjustments once the employee starts work, but ensuring that they are creating opportunities that work in the long-term and support the employee to thrive. By taking an individual approach to managing every employee, you will be better equipped to retain talented staff with disabilities.

Here, we answer your questions about supporting disabled employees and share our tips to managing employees with disabilities fairly and effectively.

What is disability?

A disability is any condition, physical or mental, that makes it more difficult for a person to do certain activities or interact with the world around them.

This covers a wide range of conditions, ranging from ‘visible’ disabilities to ‘non-visible’ disabilities and everything in between. Under the Equality Act 2010, a disability is defined as any impairment that has a substantial and long-term effect on the employee’s ability to do normal daily activities. There are also special rules about recurring or fluctuating conditions, such as arthritis, that you can read about here.

However, for employers and managers, supporting disabled staff in the workplace needs to go beyond the definitions and expectations outlined in the Act. Managers need to focus on disabled employees as individuals, helping them to thrive in the workplace by making adjustments that enable them to reach their full potential.

What impact does a disability have on an employee at work?

How exactly someone’s disability affects them in the workplace varies: it depends on the individual and the demands of their role. Some disabilities are considered more obvious and therefore easier to make adjustments for than others – for instance, the needs of someone who uses a wheelchair may seem to be more apparent than someone who is autistic. Yet in both instances, it is so important not to assume understanding and to instead listen to the employee’s individual needs.

For instance, you may think that installing a ramp or height-adjusted workstation is enough to facilitate an employee with reduced mobility, without taking into consideration the wider problems that commuting to the workplace or being away from home presents for that person. Similarly, an autistic employee may seem to be perfectly happy in a loud, open-plan office, but is actually struggling to get through their workload.

As a manager, you need to understand the impact of your report’s disability in order to make reasonable adjustments.

What is a ‘reasonable adjustment’?

Reasonable adjustments are changes that your organisation has to make to enable a person with disabilities to fulfil their role without a disadvantage compared to other employees.

What constitutes ‘reasonable’ according to the Act is measured on the change’s practicality, cost, and the resources and financial support available to make the adjustment. However, instead of looking at adjustments from a legal perspective, take a critical look at what you can change as a business, and what impact it could have. Say a role usually requires four days a week in the office according to contract, but a disabled report will be able to perform better if they work more hours at home. Instead of looking at a compromise that meets in the middle, look at what is going to get the best results from the employee.

Should I manage someone with a disability differently?

Well, yes and no. Yes, in that you need to make those reasonable adjustments that we have already mentioned. No, in that you should be aware of and reacting to every employee’s individual needs to unlock their full potential and boost their performance. For a disabled employee, the changes you need to make may be more significant than others, but the principle is the same: to unlock the employee’s potential and make the same opportunities available to them as everyone else.

A disabled person’s management shouldn’t be focused on their disability: it should be focused on facilitating their own personal goals, ambitions and happiness in the workplace.

Remember, every employee is different.

These tips all come with a caveat: ask the right questions before you assume anything about the individual or their condition.

Tackle your proximity bias

When workplaces moved to remote working during the pandemic, many disabled employees or job applicants found that they could finally achieve the flexibility they needed to work from home without unfair perceptions of their contribution or involvement at work. Now that employees are returning to the office, make sure you are not falling into ‘proximity bias’ against disabled employees and are continuing to facilitate the best working conditions for them. Make remote 1:1 conversations the norm, with in-person optional, and use equal, easy-to-measure success metrics for all employees.

Understand their needs and challenges

Ask, don’t assume. Find out what the individual needs to manage their role, rather than making sweeping generalisations. Regular 1:1s are essential to this, as needs and challenges can change over time, particularly when it comes to disabilities that can fluctuate in symptoms or severity over time. It’s so important not to take a ‘one size fits all’ approach to disabilities and listen to the individual rather than base decision-making on assumptions.

Proactively monitor wellbeing

Addressing wellbeing has to go beyond a quick ‘how are you?’ By giving every employee a way to measure their wellbeing and keep track of changes, disabled employees will feel more empowered to flag when their wellbeing is being affected without worrying about being treated unfairly as a result.

Become a coach

By scheduling regular 1:1s, asking the right questions, listening, and taking action, you can help reports with disabilities to manage their condition without stress, creating an environment that enables them to perform to the best of their ability at work – as opposed to helping them to ‘conform’ to how others in their team carry out their duties. By building coaching techniques into 1:1 meetings, you can help employees identify what has the most positive impact on their work-life balance, and enables them to achieve their own performance objectives and goals.

Managing an employee with a disability should be no different from managing any other employee: it’s about having inclusive conversations and taking a people-first approach.

Listen to what your reports have to say. Make the adjustments they need to be happy and productive in the workplace. Have regular, open and honest conversations to stay up to date with their wellbeing, challenges and goals.

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If you want a better way to manage and coach employees with disabilities successfully, book a discovery call with OpenBlend today. We’ll provide you with unique insight into your team: sparking the right conversations, at the right time, for more effective 1:1s.

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