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Meeting the needs of disabled employees

Companies can implement effective and practical measures to accommodate employees with a disability or long-term illness

“We need to look at what adaptations make us perform better and enhance our working lives.” Photograph: iStock

“We need to look at what adaptations make us perform better and enhance our working lives.” Photograph: iStock

 

The Employment Equality Act obliges employers to make reasonable accommodation for people with disabilities or long-term illnesses, meaning an employer must take “appropriate measures” to meet the needs of disabled people in the workforce. Essentially, these are some effective and practical changes that the employer can put in place, making sure employees with a disability can carry out their work on a par with others in the workplace. The employer is not obliged to provide anything the person would normally provide for themselves – for example, reading glasses or hearing aids – but needs to be aware of any practical solutions required of an employee with a disability.

For some businesses, this may sound daunting, but Maria Hegarty of Equality Strategies explains this is invariably easier, and cheaper, than it sounds. “The word ‘reasonable’ is entirely intentional and that’s what people need to focus on. Companies need to look at it from a cultural and strategic point of view.” She outlines the steps companies can take to meet the practical needs of disabled employees.

1. Talk to the experts

Firstly, Hegarty advises it is “critical” organisations get familiar with the different kinds of adaptations that can be made in the workplace. This is something able-bodied people will not always understand.

“There is a lot that can be done, but if you don’t need it in terms of operating a computer or ergonomic assessments around using a particular chair or desk, it won’t be done.”

She says talking to experts in the form of advocacy groups and representative bodies is an essential step when it comes to assessing or providing reasonable accommodations. “People with disabilities do know about it, and people who work with those with disabilities. I always recommend that companies I work with talk to organisations such as Rehab and Enable Ireland – it’s important that we speak to the experts and don’t make assumptions about the types of reasonable accommodations people might need.”

2. Don’t always think big

Often, the types of accommodations that need to be made are very small in the grand scheme of things, says Hegarty. “They are not always momentous, they can be very small and very doable. It might just be privacy so someone can inject medication, or a ramp, or a particular training course so that machinery or equipment can be used by anyone.” What’s important is the mindset, she adds – “employers need to think, ‘this can be done’.”

3. Stay up to date

Technology is advancing at an exponential rate – accommodations made in the past could be updated to work better and cost less, notes Hegarty. “Think of the way we all speak to our phones now – this was originally developed so that people with disabilities could use mobile phones. Something you implemented five years ago, there could be something completely new on the market and what you have, there could be a cheaper and better way of doing it.”

4. Don’t fear the expense

“I couldn’t count the number of times I sat down with someone to tell them how to do something and that it would cost €500, and they thought it would be more like €5,000. It’s not a case of a company doing something that bankrupts the company, it’s about them being able to function,” says Hegarty.

These misperceptions can impact both employer and potential employee; again, Hegarty suggests always calling the experts. The Employment Equality Act notes that employers should not experience a “disproportionate burden”; this should be borne in mind, but with the right information, reasonable accommodations are often made with minimum cost and effort. Furthermore, grants and subsidies are often available.

5. Unconscious bias

It’s there, whether we know it or not. Hegarty recommends employers take a step back and consider the benefit a person, regardless of disability, can have for a company. “If you keep an open mind, and talk to people who know about it, you might end up making an adaptation that makes things better for everyone in the business.”

Hegarty gives a great example – the introduction of ramps that made buses wheelchair accessible. “Every woman with a buggy thought it was the best thing ever. Separating people and outing them into silos isn’t intelligent business behaviour. We need to look at what adaptations make us perform better and enhance our working lives.”