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Staff with disabilities: How to treat disabled employees fairly

Premises and workstation adjustments may be legally required for staff with disabilities, says Claire Brook.

The Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) imposes a duty on employers to make reasonable adjustments to accommodate their staff member's disabilities. If a practice is aware, or could reasonably be expected to know, that a person has a disability it will be required to make adjustments to the physical working environment. Also, the practice's criteria and procedures (for example, selection and interview processes) may need to be altered if a failure to make adjustments would place the disabled applicant at a substantial disadvantage.

Here we consider the steps GP employers should take during the recruitment process and while individuals are working for you to ensure that disabled employees are not at a disadvantage.

Discrimination
The DDA defines a disability broadly. An employee's illness will be a disability if it is a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term effect on their ability to carry out normal activities (such as mobility and speech).

The term 'substantial and long-term' is defined as likely to last or has lasted for more than 12 months, even if the condition is in remission. Mental impairment can include stress and depression. Progressive conditions, such as cancer and AIDS, are also included. A person with such a condition is deemed disabled when diagnosed.

An equal opportunities policy should be in place that covers disability discrimination. Employees should be encouraged to disclose any disabilities so that appropriate steps can be taken.

Recruitment
GPs need to ensure equal opportunity when they are recruiting. It is important that any medical information requested from prospective employees should be asked for only in the context of ascertaining if there are any adjustments that can be made to allow the prospective employee to fulfil the role. For example a secretary who has arthritis may be able to type as proficiently as any other secretary with the assistance of a modified keyboard.

Interviews should take place at a location with disabled access, and in any case, practices will need to ensure that disabled employees have access to their place of work.

Work environment
Aids which might assist disabled workers include preferential allocated car parking; ramps to facilitate access; lifts; handrails on staircases; and accessible toilets (see box, above). Many of these measures will be needed to meet DDA requirements.

The DDA requires adjustments to be made at the workplace for disabled staff that cover work systems, method of work and personnel procedures.

An employer who fails to comply with the legislation may face an unlimited claim for compensation.

Depending on the individual's particular disability, it may be appropriate for employees to be referred to an occupational health adviser who may be able to suggest adjustments.

Ill-health absence
When ill-health is the reason for absence, GP employers should be alert to the protection afforded to a disabled person under the DDA. It is essential to establish the cause of the absence and to consider what arrangements can be put in place to ensure that an employee can return to work.

It may be appropriate to ask the staff member to see an occupational health adviser to highlight what measures may assist with this. A return-to-work interview will give you an opportunity to discuss with the individual which measures may be appropriate. Transferring certain duties that an employee can no longer perform to other members of staff or reducing the employee's hours of work may help facilitate a return to work.

Under-performance
If a disabled employee is under-performing in their job, before considering disciplinary action, it may be appropriate to speak to the employee to establish the causes for the poor performance as this may be related to their disability.

Ms Brook is an associate in the employment team at solicitors Aaron & Partners in Chester; www.aaronandpartners.com

Helping disabled staff
Aids may include:

  • Allocated car parking.
  • Ramps to facilitate access.
  • Lifts.
  • Handrails on staircases.
  • Accessible toilets.
  • Relocation of light switches.
  • Improved lighting.
  • Improved signage.
  • Modification of door handles and taps.

An occupational health adviser may suggest:

  • Voice activated software.
  • Induction loop.
  • Task lighting.
  • Text phones.
  • Visual warnings.
  • Adapted office equipmen
  • Practical pointers

Do

  • Ask employees for medical information on their application form and encourage them to disclose their disabilities.
  • Provide disabled access and facilities to your premises for disabled staff.
  • Refer disabled employees to an occupational health adviser who can recommend aids.
  • Invite employees to attend return-to-work interviews after prolonged absences.

Don't

  • Take any disciplinary action without considering if there are any reasonable adjustments that can be made to your premises or the staff member's workstation to enable them to do their job properly.

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