· Features

A different slant: Reasonable adjustments alone won't cut it


Making reasonable adjustments has become synonymous with disability inclusion. But our recent research, The Great Big Workplace Adjustments Survey 2023, shows that it’s not quite that simple – for disabled staff or their managers. Employers must look beyond adjustments to an employee’s job role to become truly disability inclusive.

Business Disability Forum’s research showed the stark reality of the battle for reasonable adjustments. Angela Matthews, the charity's policy and research lead, discusses the results and how HR can turn them into action.

The research

Business Disability Forum carried out its first survey into people’s experiences of working with and managing adjustments back in 2019.

We had consistently seen that adjustments were the most common topic that employers asked our advice, consultancy, and policy teams about.

Making adjustments is a legal requirement and every employer does it, so we wanted to uncover the experiences behind the processes.

We found that adjustments took a long time to get in place and managers were not wholly confident with internal process or what they could authorise.

Read: Disabled employees still struggling to get adjustments

We also started to see that employees’ experience of getting adjustments impacted how genuine they felt their employer was about wider inclusion values.

We had planned to repeat our survey in 2021 but due to the Covid-19 pandemic decided to delay until 2023 to capture the impact of new working practices.

Based on the 2019 findings, we expanded the 2023 iteration of the survey and added new themes.

These included adjustment passports, occupational health, working life during and since the pandemic, assertiveness and self-confidence, work-related stress, health and wellbeing initiatives, and what employees want in their careers.

We found that in general disabled employees are still having to wait too long to get the adjustments they need with many having to drive and initiate the process themselves rather than the employer.

But the research also found that adjustments were just one part of the jigsaw.

Adjustments alone could not address the barriers that people were experiencing in the wider organisation outside of their immediate role.

These additional barriers limited the impact of the adjustments in terms of improving people’s enjoyment and productivity in their roles, resulting in managers being more positive about adjustments than the people who were using them.

Read more: 'Reasonable' adjustments just aren't reasonable

Managers showed greater confidence in discussing disability and long-term conditions than in 2019 and this also meant that they generally understood and could see the systemic discriminatory barriers that existed.

Managers expressed frustration for their disabled staff; they cited institutional barriers, poor attitudes from senior managers, and slow adjustments procedures, and they often felt ‘powerless’ to influence those areas that existed beyond what they could influence.

For disabled staff, intimidating use of occupational health, inaccessible health and wellbeing initiatives, bullying and harassment and limited career progression were some of the remaining barriers.

Employees generally felt that these barriers were not intended, but existed because their employer had not considered the impact something would have on disabled staff.

This made disabled staff feel that they did not belong. A finding supported by research into retaining disabled employees conducted by Scope.

The research also showed that for many disabled workers there is a part of being disabled that even the best employer cannot solve: that is, the disability or condition itself.

For many people, difficulties, pain, tiredness, and the sheer time and energy it takes to manage conditions are barriers that are untouched by adjustments to a job or even the most inclusive of cultures.

Key findings

1. The wait for adjustments

Our 2023 survey found that disabled employees find it hard to get adjustments, despite it being an employer’s responsibility to provide them.

Just one in 10 found it easy to get the adjustments they need and 8% waited over a year to get them – a 4% improvement since 2019. In addition, 78% of disabled employees said they initiated the process rather than their employer.

At the same time, just 19% of managers said it was easy to put adjustments in place for their staff, due to complex and disjointed processes in their organisation.

2. Wider barriers

Once adjustments were in place, just 18% of disabled employees said they had removed all disability-related barriers in the workplace for them. Managers had a far more positive view of adjustments than their staff.

Three-quarters of managers said their disabled staff enjoyed their job more and were more productive. Less than half of disabled staff agreed (see figure below).

For most disabled employees, barriers remained even after adjustments had been put in place. These wider barriers were far ranging, from inaccessible employee assistance programmes (44%) to disability related workplace bullying and harassment (38%).

3. The view of senior leaders

Just one in three disabled employees felt that their employer was genuine about removing disability related barriers in their organisation.

Senior leaders’ attitudes towards disability and adjustments were often seen as unhelpful and even damaging by some employees and managers. Only half of managers said they knew what leaders meant by ‘inclusion’.

Read more: Why real inclusivity starts with inclusive leaders

4. From research to reality

This research has important implications for how adjustments are accessed as well as how organisations – from HR teams to senior leaders – approach workplace inclusion as a whole.

Access to adjustments and wider disability and health support must be simplified. Having a range of services and support located in different areas of the organisation makes it harder for managers to know what is available.

They may have to contact multiple services (such as adjustments, occupational health and counselling) to arrange support rather than contacting one streamlined ‘workplace health support’ team or department.

Read more: Reasonable adjustments for disabled workers in the age of hybrid working

Employers need to have a greater understanding of how disability affects a person’s life as a whole.

Employers should remove or reduce as many disability-related barriers in their organisations as possible, with the acceptance that someone’s disability or condition still remains.

Conversations and adjustments must be made with the idea of ‘making life easier,’ not ‘removing the disability’.

Accessibility and inclusion need to be embedded in all aspects of the organisation. This includes culture, policies, practices, and premises designed with disabled people in mind. Behaviours and decisions become the culture of an organisation.

If decisions about health initiatives, wellbeing activities, working patterns, or purchasing products or services do not include a decision-making part of the process that considers the access needs of disabled employees, it is not an inclusive decision.

Senior leaders must challenge poor workplace culture, set an example and visibly challenge insensitive language and non-inclusive behaviours. This will give permission for managers to do the same at team level.

Where employees see disability-related behaviours and comments go unchallenged by senior leaders, it creates hostility among teams and it says to workforces ‘employees with disabilities do not belong here’.

Adjustments remain vitally important but we must also look beyond adjustments to achieve workplace inclusion.


Perceptions of adjustments

One survey respondent: “The adjustments help more than not having them. But they don’t remove all of the barriers because the conditions are still there and still affect the working day.”

Source: Business Disability Forum, Great Big Workplace Adjustments Survey 2023

In numbers:

“Adjustments help disabled staff enjoy their job more.”

75% of managers agreed

38% of disabled staff agreed

“Adjustments help disabled staff be more productive.”

75% of managers agreed

48% of disabled staff agreed


About the author

Angela Matthews is head of policy and research at Business Disability Forum, specialising in UK work, health, and disability policy.

She is an adviser to and research partner on several academic research projects related to health, disability inclusion, and employment. Matthews has professional experience in diversity and equalities management, disability and workplace adjustments, equalities data management, employee relations, and occupational health.

She also holds several postgraduate research qualifications, including certification in legal studies, a diploma in human rights law and a masters in social philosophy specialising in the intersections of gender, religion, and body politics.


This article appears in the September/October 2023 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.