How to avoid discriminating against disabled employees

We look at how businesses can support employees with disabilities

Under the Equality Act 2010, a person is deemed disabled if they have a physical or mental impairment that has a substantially adverse and long-term effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. Here’s how you can avoid discriminating against disabled people in the workplace.

In the workplace, the Act states such activities as using a telephone or computer, interacting with colleagues, following instructions, driving, and carrying everyday objects.

For many companies, it is far easier to employ people with a physical disability than those suffering from hidden or intermittent disabilities, because the visible nature of the physical disability makes it more apparent how best to support that person in their role.

While companies may have a fully inclusive policy in place and believe they are geared up to employing physically disabled people, it can be easy to discriminate without realising.

Avoid discriminating against disabled employees

Ensuring a company adheres to a competent diversity and inclusion policy starts at the recruitment stage. Pre-legislation, employers could ask questions about health prior to an interview but this is no longer allowed. You cannot discriminate before inviting for an interview, and you must put measures in place to accommodate a disabled person for the interview.

If the office, for example, does not enable disabled access, an employer should consider interviewing at a different location and then make changes to the workplace if the candidate is successful.

1. Documented evidence

As part of this process, it is imperative that full records of any meeting, and the interview scoring process, are documented to prove an interviewee wasn’t discriminated against, should this be questioned at a later date.

Anyone discriminated against in the selection process can make a claim. Employers should also be aware that any claim relating to disability has no cap on financial compensation – unlike other areas.

2. Capability vs discrimination

As well as accessibility issues, disabled people experience scepticism over their ability to perform a role. The government arbitration body Acas reported that, in 2015, “42% of disabled people seeking work found the biggest barrier to being hired was misconceptions around what they could do”.

In many professions, physical disability does not, and should not, exclude someone from performing a role. There are specific examples where this is the case, but care must be made to avoid discrimination repercussions.

When hiring pallbearers, for example, a manager cannot ask, ‘can we make sure all applicants are over 5ft 8’. While it may seem practical for the role, it is not insurmountable, and indirectly it is discriminating against women, whose average height is below this threshold. However, people in wheelchairs could be legitimately refused an interview – there is a difference between capability and discrimination.

3. Employer obligations

Employers are obligated to make any reasonable adjustments to enable a physically disabled person to perform their role, be it workstation modifications or wheelchair ramps, to name but two. The same applies to enabling access to training and development.

Employers who fail to make reasonable adjustments for a disabled job applicant or employee is one of the most common types of disability discrimination, according to Acas.

The body adds: “If adjustments are ‘reasonable’, an employer must make them to ensure its workplace or practices do not disadvantage a disabled job applicant or employee already with the organisation.”

The Government portal for information and services,, adds: “If you reject a disabled candidate, it must be based on their performance at interview rather than having to make reasonable adjustments.”

4. Embrace reasonable adjustments

Companies should not fear the need to make reasonable adjustments. Help is at hand, both with advice and financial support. For example, there are government grants available for any building changes that need to be made as a result of hiring a disabled person, such as providing access ramps, stairlifts and toilets. What’s more, these are VAT free.

Reasonable adjustments do not just apply to building or workspace changes, such as a special chair or desk, nor do they necessarily incur a financial cost – they can include revising some of the employee’s duties. An employer is not, however, required to change functions essential to the role.

Other considerations

Another situation that companies should prepare for is: what happens when an employee becomes disabled while in their employment?

The first thing to assess is how will the disability affect the person’s role. If they can’t do their current job because of their disability, the employer has an obligation to redeploy.

Here, the employer should take medical advice from a doctor and an occupational health therapist to look at whether the person can do elements of their role.

Additionally, the employer is required, if applicable, to create access to the employee’s workspace or find an alternative arrangement – for example, home working or relocation to the ground floor

Travel to the workplace itself is another issue confronting people with a physical disability. While employers are not obligated to provide transport, they could organise a car share, for example

In this article, you learned that:

  • Reasonable adjustments go beyond a special chair or desk, they can include revising some duties
  • These adjustments also include enabling access to training and development
  • Anyone discriminated against in the selection process can make a claim making it imperative that records are kept for interview processes in case evidence is needed to disprove discrimination

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