Employment law and the invisible disability

It is one thing to expect employers and co-workers to understand the needs of a disabled employee or work colleague in a wheel chair and to make adjustments for them, but it is often much harder for work places to cater for the needs of employees with what are nowadays classed as “invisible disabilities”.  Likewise, some employees do not want to draw attention to themselves and to seek help or work place adjustments for their invisible disability. That can in turn lead to a crisis with the employee’s disability or with their ability to cope in the work environment because, unlike say with a stroke, the human resources department or co- workers cannot see the disability until the effects of the disability on the worker’s ability to do their job become too obvious to ignore. Top London employment law solicitors are used to being asked for employment law advice after an invisible disability has become an issue in the workplace, either for the employer or employee.    

What is a disability?

You may think the question “what is a disability?” the sort of question that only a London employment law solicitor would ask. After all, most people think that the definition of disability is obvious. However, the Equality Act 2010 defines disability as a physical or mental impairment which “has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on a person’s ability to carry out normal day to day activities”.

Although the UK has legislation to define disability, many disabled people go unrecognised according to research carried out by the charity, Scope. In a poll, 43% of the participants said that they did not know anyone with a disability whereas, according to the latest census, 20% of the UK population report that they have a disability or a long-term health issue that creates limitations for them.  According to all the available research, the majority of the population do not see the disability of others if it is not obvious, for example, in the form of a wheel chair, prosthesis or white stick, and that lack of vision can create real employment law problems for employers.

Creating awareness 

According to the best London employment law solicitors, employers can go a long way towards creating work place environments where employees can be helped to have a greater awareness of hidden or invisible disabilities. For example, a sign in the toilet facilities reminding employees that illnesses such as prostate cancer, or Crohn’s disease may not be visible can avoid employees confronting or criticising co-workers. Many employees do not want to disclose what they perceive to be an embarrassing medical condition to their co-workers resulting in staff perceiving that the employee with the invisible illness or disability is a skiver through taking too frequent and unnecessary work breaks.

It is not just in workplaces that signs are appearing to help people recognise that disability is all around us. Someone may appear distant and aloof, it may be their personality or their lack of hearing or early onset dementia. Supermarkets, with their ‘dementia awareness’ signs are not just helping their employees recognise hidden disabilities and illness, but also encouraging their customers to do so.

Talking to employees 

If an employer is aware that an employee has a hidden disability that other employees are not aware of, leading to mutterings of laziness or favouritism, it can be tempting for an employer to want to talk to their employees. From the point of view of the best London employment law solicitors it is important that particular care is taken to respect the privacy and confidentiality of the individual employee. Conversations can take place in team or individual meetings or at staff conferences on the employer’s work ethos and desire to create an inclusive work place environment that meets the needs of employees who are both able bodied and disabled, including those with invisible disabilities or illnesses.  

Making reasonable adjustments 

Any employer or employee who has taken legal advice from a top London employment law solicitor will know that the law imposes a duty on employers to make reasonable adjustments to accommodate the needs of employee’s with a disability. When it comes to invisible illness the type of reasonable adjustment can vary much more widely than say an employee who is blind and who needs adaptive technology for their telephone and for co-workers to understand that their guide dog is a working dog and to respect that.   

When it comes to reasonable adjustments for employees with invisible disabilities, top London employment law solicitors will advise that employers are required to understand the obstacles the individual employee is facing and to put adjustments in place to resolve them, in so far as is practicable to do so. In the experience of the best London employment law solicitors it is often that caveat that leads to tension between what the employer thinks is feasible and practicable in the workplace, taking into account the needs of the individual employee, the remaining workforce and the business, against what the employee with the invisible disability thinks is reasonable . 

Communication between employer and employee is key to determining what adjustments are required as what an employer may initially think the employee may want is not always wanted or required. Sometimes expensive equipment is not the answer but instead a small change to working hours, greater flexibility in employment or just an adaption to the existing office procedure will meet the employee’s needs for adjustments to be made to accommodate their disability.

It can be important for an employer to take independent occupational health advice on what adjustments should be made to assist an employee. The other vital aspect, when looking at reasonable adjustments, is to keep things under review. After all, not all medical conditions or illnesses remain static and therefore what constitutes reasonable adjustments made change over time, depending on the nature of the hidden disability or even, if relevant, advances in technology.   

OTS Solicitors are specialist in employment law matters. For advice and support on any aspect of employment law, please call us on 0203 959 9123 to arrange an appointment to speak to one of our experienced London employment solicitors.

 

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