“We are proactive and not reactive. Working with the employer we work together to provide reasonable adjustments from the outset; we don’t wait for a situation to arise.” Steven McGurk, Branch Secretary, Community union at Royal Strathclyde Blindcraft Industries.
The rates of disability amongst the working population are increasing due to an ageing population and an increase in chronic health conditions, among other causes. Unlike other areas of equality, someone may develop an impairment during the course of their employment so employers, particularly front line managers, must be able to respond effectively.
Getting this right makes business sense. An employer will lose the skills, expertise and experience of disabled staff if effective policies are not in place. This includes putting reasonable adjustments in place and an awareness about disability equality in the workplace. In addition, having a recognised trade union is an effective way to ensure there are collective bargaining arrangements to develop equality policies. This approach gives staff a voice and ensures employers are alert and responsive to staff needs.
These measures will also ensure that managers are complying with the public sector equality duty. Employers must demonstrate that they have paid due to regard to eliminate unlawful discrimination and advance equality of opportunity for disabled staff. Ignorance is no excuse. In practice an employer must demonstrate that they have taken all reasonable and proportionate steps to ensure a disabled member of staff can carry out their daily duties and that they have proactively sought to remove all forms of discrimination.
The TUC’s Manifesto for Disability Equality and accompanying guidance is a tool to help with this. The manifesto, developed in conjunction with the TUC disabled workers’ committee. It is a tool to help trade unionists negotiate for disability equality in the workplace but also provides valuable insight for managers.
Disabled people want to work but inaccessible work spaces, workplace discrimination, and management who do not always have the guidance or knowledge about managing disabled staff, all make this harder. The manifesto seeks to address this. It sets out a vision where disabled people can fully access the economic, social and cultural opportunities in society.
At its heart is the social model of disability – a fundamentally different approach from the medicalised model that has so long dominated much public understanding of disability. The social model of disability sees the individual first, it doesn’t medicalise people by their impairments but it seeks to remove the barriers disabled people experience. In the workplace this would take the form of reasonable adjustments such as physical changes e.g. IT equipment or changes to working hours.
An employer should also be aware off the Access to Work programme which provides government funding for adjustments for disabled people in the workplace. An employer will also want to raise awareness about disability equality in the workplace. They will want to support the recognised trade union to hold an event to talk about the social model of disability. The speaker should be a disabled person from the union or someone recommended by them. Trade unions have a significant role to play to bring about change and ensure disabled people can negotiate on their own their own terms.
The job of managing people is not easy. Employees come from a wealth of different backgrounds and experiences. To get it right takes time, energy and thoughtfulness. The manifesto is a useful tool in guiding employers and should be used to ensure workplaces are inclusive of disabled staff and every reasonable step is taken to avoid stigma, discrimination and prejudice.
Huma Munshi, Policy Officer - Equality & Strategy Department at Trades Union Congress