You’re probably used to the notion of reasonable adjustments, the changes an employer makes to help people work in a way that best suits them.
Employers, might, for example, introduce flexible working arrangements, make changes to the physical workplace environment, or provide specific equipment and support.
It is a legal obligation to make reasonable adjustments, and employers are responsible for any associated costs.
What is ‘reasonable’, however, and who decides, depends on each given situation, according to Acas.
Disability and the workplace:
The problem with reasonable adjustments
Firstly, the concept of reasonable adjustments often sets a (very) low benchmark, and an expectation that employers simply meet the minimum requirements.
A truly accessible and inclusive working environment is one where employers strive for a more proactive and anticipatory approach.
This might be, for example, adopting the principles of 'universal design' or 'inclusive design', which involve creating environments that are accessible and usable to the widest range of people possible.
Secondly, reasonable adjustments place the emphasis on the employee to justify the changes they need.
Recent research from the Business Disability Forum's The Great Big Workplace Adjustments Survey found that the majority of disabled employees have to initiate the process of securing workplace adjustments themselves.
This can disempower – rather than enable – people, and encourages organisations to pay lip service to adapting people’s roles.
An alternative is to adopt a co-created approach, to support employees in meeting their needs. In some cases, companies could simply give people the autonomy to make the changes in the first place.
Thirdly, acquiring reasonable adjustments assumes that workers are ready and willing to disclose their needs in order to access these adjustments.
Not all working cultures are free from stigma, prejudice and fear of consequence as a result of disability disclosure, and we know that this can lead to people not having the adjustments in place that they need.
In fact, organisations could offer many adjustments up front for everyone to access, without the requirement to disclose.
For example, allowing workers to adjust noise and lighting levels, providing access to a range of supportive software, and offering flexible working options that allow individuals to manage their needs effectively while still fulfilling their work responsibilities.
Why should we change our approach?
In research by Birkbeck’s Centre for Neurodiversity Research, neurodivergent respondents highlighted that their informal adjustments, i.e. those available to all employees, came with no additional cost but “make all the difference to perceptions of inclusion and belonging.”
The researchers add that “tailored adjustments make people stay, and lack of adjustments make them leave – so the adjustments are a baseline every organisation needs in place.” Seems like a no brainer to me.
You may recognise this practice of informal adjustments as job crafting - an employee led approach to changing aspects of a job to make it more engaging and meaningful.
Research demonstrates a vast array of positive impacts that job crafting can have on individuals, teams, and organisations. At its core is the recognition that we are all different, one size does not fit all, and this is something to be embraced.
In fact, for neurodivergent individuals in particular: “Job crafting can make a difference between employment struggle and exceptional success.”
So what should we be doing instead?
More broadly, if organisations took an employee-centred and personalised approach to work, reasonable adjustments would just be, well, adjustments.
Normalising the practice of informally adjusting our jobs will mean that we create more accessible and inclusive environments for all.
By moving beyond the concept of reasonable adjustments, we can look to a world with greater expectations and fewer barriers to thriving at work for all.
Charlotte Axon is the lead people scientist at consultancy Tailored Thinking.