In the last few years, the conversation around diversity, equity and inclusion has grown. Businesses, employers and organisations are finally recognising that almost 25% of the population is disabled and that there is an urgent need to increase disability inclusion in the workplace. In recruitment and HR, we’re constantly hearing terms like ‘accessibility’, ‘intersectionality’ and ‘reasonable adjustments’. 

And yet, while most of us have now come across the idea of reasonable adjustments, many of us are still unsure about what the term really means. What is a reasonable adjustment? Who are they for? And what makes an adjustment ‘reasonable’?

Below, we have summarised the key things to know, as an employer or as an employee.

What are reasonable adjustments

Reasonable adjustments (sometimes called workplace adjustments or accommodations) are changes made to a disabled person’s working conditions so that they can perform as well as possible. 

Too often, these are still misunderstood. Despite what many people think, reasonable adjustments are not about positive discrimination towards disabled people – and they are certainly not about preferential treatment. Neither is the term just a buzzword that exists only in DE&I spaces. 

In reality, reasonable adjustments are a legal requirement under the UK’s Equality Act 2010. When employers fail to provide reasonable adjustments, this constitutes disability discrimination. It is, therefore, essential that employers have a solid understanding of how and when to provide reasonable adjustments for disabled employees.

Few people realise that ‘reasonable adjustments’ are not particularly new. In the early 1990s, disability activists fought hard for legislation that would give equal rights to disabled people in society: campaigners demanded, among other things, equal access to public transport and workplace accommodations to be made a legal requirement. Their efforts were successful and in 1995, the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) was passed, enshrining the idea of ‘reasonable adjustments’ into UK law. Eventually, the DDA was subsumed into the Equality Act 2010, but today, the idea of ‘reasonable adjustments’ remains a crucial part of the UK legislation on disability rights.

Who is entitled

According to the Equality Act 2010, anyone who meets the definition of a disabled person is entitled to reasonable adjustments at work. 

The Equality Act defines a disabled person as anyone with 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.’ This includes, but is not limited to, people with:

  • chronic illnesses
  • mental health conditions
  • mobility impairments
  • sensory impairments
  • learning disabilities
  • neurodivergence

The Equality Act states that employers are legally obliged to provide reasonable adjustments to any disabled employee, so that they can access the same level of opportunity, dignity and comfort in the workplace as their non-disabled peers. Reasonable adjustments set disabled employees up for success by ensuring that they have equal access to their non-disabled colleagues.

We have written a blog on how to support your disabled employees and colleagues to be successful in the workplace. Click here to read it.

What is meant by “reasonable”

This is the part that many people find confusing: ‘reasonable’ can be hard to define. The word ‘reasonable’ is vague and somewhat relative. It’s a slightly slippery, subjective term which different people might choose to define differently. What one person might define as ‘reasonable’ might be ‘unreasonable’ to someone else. What might be ‘reasonable’ to one disabled person might be ‘unreasonable’ to an employer. So who gets to decides what is or isn’t reasonable?

Ultimately, there are no fixed rules about what makes an adjustment ‘reasonable.’ A ‘reasonable adjustment’ is an adjustment that works for both the employer and the employee. 

However, when deciding whether an adjustment is reasonable, we can usually consider questions like:

  • Will making this adjustment reduce or eliminate the barrier faced by the disabled employee? 
  • What will the adjustment cost the employer?
  • If the cost of the adjustment is high, could the employee seek financial support from the government scheme Access to Work? How could the employer support them in this process?
  • How practical or feasible is implementing the adjustment?
  • How quickly could the adjustment be implemented?
  • In what ways – if any – might the adjustment affect the working conditions of other employees?

It’s worth noting that some disabled people resent the use of the adjective ‘reasonable’; they argue that it’s a distraction from the important word – ‘adjustment’ – and that it can be off-putting to businesses because it implies that making changes can be a difficult or troublesome task. Perhaps one day the terminology will change, and the adjective ‘reasonable’ will be dropped. 

But in the meantime, it’s essential that businesses understand that making reasonable adjustments is not, in fact, an arduous task. Most adjustments are easy, low-cost or even free to implement. Others can be funded by an Access to Work grant.

Reasonable adjustment examples

Below, we have summarised a few common examples of reasonable adjustments.

  • Working remotely or from home
  • Using flexible working hours
  • Starting or finishing work earlier or later
  • Working standing up or sitting down
  • Making physical changes to the work environment (eg. providing a ramp)
  • Providing an interpreter or personal assistant
  • Using specialist equipment, software or technology
  • Providing information in alternative formats (eg. via a Word document rather than a PDF if an employee is using a screen reader)
  • Communicating in a different way (eg. via email or text rather than phone calls if an employee is Deaf or hard of hearing)
  • Providing a reserved car parking space near the entrance of the office building

It’s important to remember that although some of the more common reasonable adjustments are listed above, disabled people are all different and their needs are individual. The list of possible reasonable adjustments is infinite!

Instead of prescribing ‘cookie-cutter’ adjustments, an employer should have an open and compassionate conversation with their disabled employee about their needs. Employees need to be honest about how their disability affects them and how specific adjustments could help to reduce barriers in the workplace, so that employers, in turn, can listen, understand and make the necessary changes to support them.

Advice for employees

  • Know your rights
  • Be open and honest about your needs
  • Don’t ‘downplay’ your disability through fear of causing a ‘fuss’
  • Look into the Access to Work scheme to see how it could support you
  • Consider writing an access rider

Advice for employers

  • Talk to employees who are struggling or who have been off sick for extended periods
  • Listen to your disabled employees when they share their lived experience and disclose their needs
  • Be prepared to put in place reasonable adjustments at every stage of the employment process – from the earliest job listings through to interviews and beyond
  • Be flexible
  • Be kind and compassionate

Celebrating Disability provide training sessions and consulting around embedding reasonable adjustment policies and guidance into organisations. If you’re interested in finding out more about how we can adjustments can be embedded as part of your workplace culture, please get in touch.