Rather than being a familiar and common amenity in today’s supposedly more open working culture – disabled employees routinely find workplace accommodations or adjustments difficult to negotiate and come by.
That’s according to leading U.K-based corporate disability inclusion thought leaders Business Disability Forum whose 500 plus members represent over 20% of the U.K. workforce. BDF’s “Great Big Workplace Adjustments Survey 2023” represents one of the most thorough pieces of research ever undertaken into workplace accommodations which can include anything from flexible working hours and locations to the provision of specialist ergonomic equipment and assistive technology.
According to the latest data, 78% of disabled employees reported having to drive the adjustments process themselves rather than their managers taking the initiative with some being forced to resort to paying for their adjustments out of their own pocket. A mere 10% of disabled employees felt it was easy to get the adjustments they needed and, while the speed of getting adjustments has improved since the last BDF survey in 2019, 1 in 8 are waiting over a year to get the adjustments they need.
The survey sampled responses from over 1,480 employees with a disability or long-term health condition and 396 line managers across a wide variety of sectors between November 2022 and March 2023.
Scratching beneath the surface
Other noteworthy takeaways from the survey revolved around the role of line managers who generally feel more comfortable talking to members of staff with disabilities about their access requirements than they did in 2019 but continue to be hampered in delivering accommodations by myriad complex internal processes and limited powers to effect wider organizational change.
Meanwhile, employee assistance programs appear to represent a novel yet often disregarded vector for disability discrimination with ill-considered health and well-being initiatives focusing on physical endurance, inaccessible mobile apps and mindfulness initiatives that can be triggering for those experiencing mental health challenges being amongst the chief culprits.
Nevertheless, perhaps the most resounding message of all is the key notion that specific workplace accommodations and adjustments are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to reviewing corporate disability inclusion in the round and sadly, many deeper challenges continue to lurk beneath the surface. Chief amongst these are reports of bullying and harassment, limited promotion and career development opportunities and wider inaccessibility of buildings and systems. As such, only 18% of disabled employees said their adjustments have removed all barriers in the workplace.
Commenting on the above, Business Disability Forum CEO Diane Lightfoot said:
“Workplace adjustments play a vital role in enabling disabled people to thrive at work. Access to adjustments needs to be simplified and improved but adjustments only remove some of the workplace barriers that disabled people experience.
“To be fully inclusive, employers need to have a greater understanding of how disability affects a person’s life as a whole. Accessibility and inclusion need to be embedded in all aspects of the organization and its culture, with policies and premises designed with disabled people in mind. Senior leaders should start by challenging poor workplace culture and driving organizational-wide change which better supports disabled employees and managers.”
Widening the lens
Business Disability Forum is calling for a simplification of workplace adjustments programs which could include a dedicated department serving as a single uniform point of entry for the entire organization.
There also needs to be a greater appreciation of the whole spectrum of disability at work including that pivotal understanding that, unlike the working day, a disability does not cease when an employee clocks off. However, a lack of appropriate accommodations at work is almost certainly likely to have ramifications related to physical and mental health outside of the office environment.
So too, adjustments, or a lack thereof, have their own unique psychology and frustrations attached to them because they play into that sense of an individual knowing that, on a level playing field, they could excel at their job but have simply not been afforded the often relatively inexpensive tools or modifications required to perform at their best.
One simple way of beginning to erode this sense of injustice is to normalize workplace adjustments by moving them out of a disability inclusion silo and viewing them as prime indicators of a more flexible, open culture that can benefit disabled and non-disabled employees alike.
It is for this reason that BDF’s report stresses that adjustments are commonly less needed in organizations where “flexibility is designed into the culture.”
This important concept of universal design is most commonly associated with physical products and spaces but can just as easily be applied to policies and programs with the potential to empower everyone.
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